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PERSISTENCE OF VISION: 
THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALTMAN 



DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF 
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 
S PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OP THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE 
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY 



OF FLORIDA 



UNIVERSITY 



through 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 




movies are all about; to my committee members. Dr. David 
Stryker, Dr. Sidney Homan, and Dr. Alfred Clubok for their 
time, interest, and signatures. 






and Dr. Ben Pickard. You spent an obscene amount of time 
helping me and just listening to me complain. Your support 
has always been appreciated deeply; you deserve the credit 
for whatever polish and refinement the work has. I wish I 
could be more eloquent; I owe you both too much. 



TABLE OF CONTENTS 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 

ABSTRACT 

INTRODUCTION 



CHAPTER X: 
CHAPTER 2: 
CHAPTER 3: 


ALTMAN ON ALTMAN 


CHAPTER 4: 


BREWSTER McCLOUD 


CHAPTER 5: 


McCABE AND MRS. MILLER 


CHAPTER 6: 
CHAPTER 7: 


THE LONG GOOD-BYE 


CHAPTER 8i 


THIEVES LIKE US 


CHAPTER 9: 


CALIFORNIA SPLIT 


CHAPTER 10: 


NASHVILLE 


CONCLUSION: 


THE AUTEUR 



BIBLIOGRAPHY 



IOGRAPHICAL 







Images , and The Long Good-bye , Altman develops his visual 
style and thematic concerns. Each is a reworking of a film 

egocentric, isolated individual in a hostile, dangerous 
world. Each is also a beautifully shot and constructed 
film, obtaining its continuity and consistency respectively 

Thieves bike Us , California Split , and Nashville all 
directly relate to the earlier Altman films. Drawing from 
the other movies, • 



e earlier Altman f 
se three reiterate, deepen, and darken 



film-maker. They a 



a completed body o: 



Altman go? 




INTRODUCTION 



I was not prepares that August 1971 night for what I 
was to see at the Esquire Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin. 

so moved; I only knew no other film had touched me so 
deeply. Hopefully, five years and many film courses since 







Once my response is added to the other characters, 

since my response is different from anyone else's, it di 
rerentiates my film experience from everyone else's. Si: 



Perhaps because Aleman demands this personal and emo- 
tional response, rather than an analytical or rational 

little has been written about Altman's movies. Sven after 

attention focused on Altman has taken the form of mild 
gossip or superficial summaries of his career and person- 



Keeping this in mind, the 
e articles and interviews t 



reaction 

'e been several informa- 
;lp explain Altman. 



These include the excellent article about the selling o 



interview with Altman in the Chicago Reader of July 5, 
1975, and the reviews of Brewster , Images , and The Long 



various issues of Film Quarterly . Whenever a 
these has been helpful or pursues a point dif- 
more extensively, I have noted the source in 







The first three. That Cold Day , MASH , and Brewster 



McCloud , are uneven movies. Failing to 
fully, they function more significantly 
of Altman's as yet unrefined strengths s 



develop themselves 
as illustrations 



their potential and implications for Altman's future work. 

The next three movies represent Altman's first mature 
efforts; because each is a variation of a particular genre, 
I examine it against a classic of its genre. McCabe and 
Mrs. Miller , a complex social study of the settling of the 
West, a beautiful photographic essay, and an enduring love 

against a simpler subjective thriller, Repulsion . Although 
similarities exist between the two films. Images uses the 
metaphor of schizophrenia to develop an abstract investiga- 






significant 




1 Joan Tewkesbury, Nashville (New York, 1976), p. 3. 



I ! ! ! 



SP- 



ture film, is ultimately uninvolving and pretentious. It 
does show, however , that Altman has always been dissatisfied 
with passively watched, unambiguous movies. Also, it of- 

surely pacing. Dealing with the familiar suspense themes 
of kidnapping, thwarted sexual desires, madess, and murder, 

do later in Images , which borrows many of these same themes, 

creasingly quick editing. Instead, audience involvement 

character development. 

captive in and by the oppressively heavy, albeit beautiful 
Art Deco apartment for the first third of the film. Al- 



though Art Deco can be light, airy, and amusing, like the 
Fred Astaire-Ginger Rodgers musicals that showcased it, 



Frances ' apartment i! 



stifling, repetitive, and 



severe geometrical patterns that allow 
we can go nowhere else, we are forced 



5 the apartment 



Unfortunately, however, our involvement is undercut 
by the characters' lack of appeal and by the events' shal- 
lowness. Seeing a boy huddled against the cold rain in the 
park outside her apartment, Frances invites the boy in. 



e forced to listen to Frances' compulsive, 

r unresolved, repressed, and unhealthy sexual 

weird and silent passivity with short and unexpected bursts 
of bizarre dancing and musical explosions. Despite their 
strangeness, however, they remain curiosities, too mild to 
be generally frightening or threatening and too remote to 
be alive. Also, rather than focus and thus create and 
identification with one of the characters, the camera di- 

of vitality and the film's failure t 

The diffusion of focus continues in the next segment. 
The boy, whose name is never revealed, escapes out of the 
bedroom window and goes to his 



squalid hippie pad that 



shares with his sexually 
dealing, leering boyfriend. Li> 
talks; his sister explains that 

turns to Frances' . Perhaps he • 
do, perhaps he is intrigued by 1 
them and spend 



sister and her drug- 

has always retreated 
After this information 



-laced cookies; they eat 
afternoon playing thinly disguised and 

Had Altman made the boy a more attractive character, 
r interest and involvement in his fate and the movie would 
re been heightened. But since he is cruelly tantalizing 
Frances and since Frances is becoming increasingly pathe- 



re not directed, we 
cene's contribution 



to the plot, but Altman' 






f the clitoris a: 









it adds nothing to the plot or the character development. 
It does, however, add texture to the film. Its humor and 



film's heavy mood; it momentarily disorients us. Catching 

intellectually. Altman will become increasingly reliant on 

date, it is startlingly effective. 

The following scene reveals Altman's talent for struc- 
turing his movies. While Prances is out, the hoy's sister, 

boy's protests, Nina draws a bath, freely uses Prances' 
toiletries, and soon pulls the boy into the tub. They 
splash and cavort; then Nina tries to seduce her astonished 

one that elicits an intense emotional reaction; throughout 
this scene there is an almost obscene air of destruction 
and violation. This reaction is caused primarily by the 
film's structure. Although the characters are not people 
with whom we identify, the apartment is beautiful. Since 

mont and since the camera lingers more lovingly on its 



furnishings and objects than it does on the characters, 
we become comfortable and familiar with the apartment. 






is breaking into our apartment; when she mistreats and care- 
lessly handles. the objects in the apartment, she seems to 
be abusing our property. Unfortunately, Altman is not 
able to transfer our reaction and concern to the characters; 
the scene's impact is, however, proof of Altman's ability 
to develop an emotional response through his careful and 
almost subliminal structure. 

The film's momentum continues with Frances' return to 
the apartment. She is unable to prevent the older doctor 
who loves her from coming up wit* 

gist' s cold and dehumanising examination, 
gloves and shiny chrome instruments. The 
tween the two doctors is unmistakable and effective. The 
scene's beautiful editing and sophisticated handling of 
time as non-linear and flexible contrasts with the rest of 
the film's straightforward presentation. Because it is so 
jarring and not integrated into the rest of the film, the 
scene may be considered gimmicky; more importantly, however, 
it indicates Altman's as yet undeveloped talent for creative 
editing and thematic presentation. 

room and tells him that she is lonely and repulsed by the 
doctor and the old people around her. As she gets more 
sexually explicit in her language, she moves closer to 






of the blanket, she tells him to make love to her. Finally, 

to find out that his sleeping body is a blanket and his 
head only a doll. Although she will later repay the boy 
with the murder in the bed, for now, she is understandably 
shaken. She has been cruelly humiliated and mocked, while 
we have been teased into falsely expecting the sexual con- 
frontation the movie has been building to from its first 



Altman has, in fact, been manipulating and then frus- 
trating our expectations from the very beginning. Frances' 
first locking of the door was an unexpected twist that cut 
short any early sexual activity; the boy* s silence was 

to be a childish sham. Even Frances' failure to catch Nina 
in the apartment worked against the cross cutting of Frances' 
anxious glances towards the window, or at least the direc- 
tion, of the apartment. These remain little twists; the 
bedroom scene is the first in which Altman successfully 
catches us totally off guard and disarms us completely. 

and ambitious in his baiting and then exploiting our ex- 
pectations. In That Cold Day , however, this reversal of 
expectations is kept on a smaller scale. 



he cannot leave her anymore, Frances waits 



and then locks him in the apartment. Even though he still 
refuses to sleep with her, Frances will not let him go. 
Torn between her desire to keep him and her fear of losing 
him, she decides to get him a whore that will keep him 
sexually satisfied. As she waits in a barren cafe for the 

plot or characters, they, like the women in the film's 
other waiting room (the gynecologist's), add atmosphere 




also do not satisfactorily develop the action; there is a 
potentially good story here but it is ineffectively pre- 
sented. As Altman will show in Images, he does not have 
to explain the events to convey the emotional content of 
the characters' lives. In That Cold Day , however, he simply 
does not generate the emotional involvement. By keeping 

ters, Altman gives us no human alternatives or dimensions 

to give us a well-developed story, he does not satisfy us 



When four films and four years later, Altman takes 
of the ideas and situations in That Cold Day and mak- 
s, he has a better control over his technique and a 
r understanding of the relationship between style* an* 
. Using the metaphor of schizophrenia for the ar- 



rom the simpler 
ts through 



and narrower suspense thriller. He k 
objects, the soft focus transitions, 

them. In addition, he adds a strong point of view that 
enables him to withhold any clinical background information 
but compensates for the lack of focus and audience identi- 
fication. 

Although That Cold Day looks more like Images than 
the other Altman films, it resembles all of them. Its 



leisurely pace, emphasis 
overlapping dialogue, its 



on the emotional r 



become Altman trademarks and vehicles in his development 
of an artistic philosophy. 

rich are empty, bored, and self-indulgent j the poor and 



hippies are a dirtier version of the rich; those in be' 
are pimps, whores, and older versions of the hippies. 

permanent love or even a satisfying temporary escape ii 



homosexuality to sex for fun to sex for money, there is 
an absence of dignity or satisfaction. Sex becomes a com- 
pulsive way to pass the time, to make a living, or to trig- 
ger a psychotic reaction. There is no alternative for 
lasting happiness or meaning, no hope for the happy ending. 
The world in Altman's films, so aptly described in the 



film's title, is cruel, hopeless, and cold. 

That cold Day not only contains clues of Altman's 
strengths, but also alerts us to the limitations or faults 
inherent in his style. The leisurely pace and creative 
use of sound can lead to self-indulgence and inspire bore- 
dom as easily as they can rapt involvement. The reliance 












ticipation. The attention paid to structure and the de- 
light in upsetting expectations may be coldly manipulative 
and mechanical, instead of intelligent and fresh. By mak- 
ing the type of movies he does, Altman courts these dangers 
and negative evaluations; since he demands a more active 
viewer, he invites disappointment, disapproval, disagree- 
ment. As viewers of Altman's movies, then, our responsibil- 
ity is not to like Altman, but to be active, honest viewers 
who demand the same integrity and responsibility from 
Altman himself. 




ks the roles and the system they legitimize. His 
s quick and playful wit, his innate rebelliousness, 






ringleader, displays 



tacks on Frank Burns and in his maneuvering to get a free 



Japan. Sharing 



the other is thinking; they spontaneously act in unison. 
Because they are so flexible and so quick , they are able 
to seise control over any situation and defeat the more 
rigid military establishment. They totally ignore, for 
example, the military conventions and are thus untouched 
by the military restrictions, when they go to Japan, they 

since they are not bound by any prescribed pattern of ac- 
tion, they constantly outwit the hospital staff and thus 
are sure of getting what they want, be it food, a golf 
course, or an operating room. 



ability to get around their roles and function humanely in 
dehumanizing situations. Colonel Blake, for instance, is 

tence in his enforcement of military regulations. Bather 
than the military, the Colonel loves fishing and nurses. 




he uses his efficiency to 
to the group's advantage, 
a key figure in keeping ti 



a other hand, is so efficient 
Colonel's instructions before 






to Hot Lips' tent. The priest. Dago Red, is also sympathe- 
tic, primarily because he listens more to the men than to 
God. Kindly and devout. Dago never pushes his role as a 
man of God but abdicates it whenever challenged. When 
giving last rites to a soldier who has just died, for ex- 
ample, he obeys a doctor who tells him to stop paying at- 
tention to the dead and help assist a patient who is still 
alive. Also, when he learns of Painless's problem of im- 

mately is reduced to blessing a jeep, he is a flexible and 



Like these three, the rest of the characters are like- 
able and positive, primarily because they are pleasant 
components of this zany group. Painless, for example, has 
the biggest penis in the Army; Duke is Trapper's and Hawk- 
eye's friend and tent-mate; Dish forgets her vow of fidelity 
to her husband and her desire for Hawk-eye by going to bed 
with Painless's enormous organ; Colonel Blake's girlfriend 
keeps his mind off military matters; even the General is 
an overgrown college boy, unable to concentrate on military 
affairs when football is mentioned. These are happy, fun- 
loving people, with whom we identify. 

There are only two sustained negative portrayals in 
the film, Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan. Of the two, 
Burns is the more threatening. His religious fanaticism 
is cued by his teaching Ho John, the Korean gopher and 



ostentatious and lengthy 



public prayers* and his unwavering seriousness and super- 
ficial righteousness. Despite his faith, however, Burns 
bullies a male nurse into falsely accepting responsibility 
for a soldier's death. Also, Burns, unlike the other MASH 
doctors, is professionally incompetent, even though he is 
the only one that is impressed with the title and implied 
status of his roles of doctor and major. 

The Burns' saga is continued in his relationship with 
Hot Lips. Kindred spirits, they decide to write a letter 
to their superiors that will expose the nonmilitary charac- 
ter of the MASH unit. In effect, they are "squealing" to 
the authorities because no one is playing by the rules. 

As they become involved in their conspiracy, they also be- 
come involved in each other . They look at each other , sud- 
denly and passionately and noisely kiss each other, and 
just as suddenly straighten their clothes and rush to the 
mess hall. For them, sex is like the military! they have 
respect for the form and look of the act but miss its 
emotional intensity and feeling. Later, when they finally 
make love, it is only after agreeing that God brought them 
together and that his "will (must) be done." Unlike the 
rest of the camp, then, they must hypocritically rational- 
ise their nonreligious desires through the misapplication 
and emptiness of their religious doctrines. 

Even their lovemaking is indicative of their absurd 
personalities. Devoid of any grace, naturalness, or 



dignity, it consists of clumsy grabbing and overly loud 
and heavy moaning. "Kiss my hot lips," she begs him re- 
peatedly. Unknown to them, their noisy coupling is being 
piped through the camp's sound system for th6 entire base's 
amusement. Although the humor in this sequence stems from 
Hot Lips' and Burns' humiliation and is thus ugly, they 
are so unsympathetic that the cruelty becomes humorous. 

When Burns is taunted into a nervous breakdown by Hawk- 
eye the next day and is carried out of the camp and film 
in a straight jacket, the loudspeaker plays "Sayonara" and 
the audience laughs. Because Burns is so absurd and be- 
cause the rest of the MASH unit is so likeable and happy. 
Burns' mental condition and mistreatment by Hawk-eye is 

Altman's tacit approval o 
Burns is continued with Hot Lips' transformation. When 
she arrives, she is a ridiculous character, making small 
talk in the operating room, referring to the military as 



home, and thinking that Fr 
of military excellence. H 
a nickname and continues h 



be ascertained. Once 
guised and endorsed b 
villains. Because he 






■ mating with Bur: 
: degradation. T 



unflagging devotion ti 



and her resulting disdain for the MASH people h. 
an alliance with Burns, she becomes a target fo 
regardless of the joke's underlying brutality. 



she too has a misguided loyalty to the military, she does 
not share his religious fanaticism. She is also different 
because whatever her faults, she is a "damn good nurse." 
When she breaks down in front of a bewildered Colonel 
Blake, she does not get carried out but instead begins her 



acceptance into the group. Soon she and Duke will go to 
bed, signaling her certification as part of the MASH team. 
And shortly thereafter, she will become head cheerleader 
for the football game, the traditionally prestigious symbol 
of female leadership. Unlike Burns, then, she has the 
ability to change and adopt a new set of values that give 
her greater happiness. 

When Hot Lips changes her values, she changes from a 
"bad" or ridiculous character to a more likeable and hap- 
pier one. Burns, however, is less flexible; because he 
never changes, he is destroyed and sent away. Although 
Hot Lips changes her code from an oppressive reliance on 
empty authoritarian roles and institutions and becomes 
freer and healthier as a person, her transition from bad 
to good character must be looked at skeptically and care- 
fully. As long as she and Bums do not have the correct 
standards, they undergo much humiliation, which seems both 
humorous and justified because of the inhumanity and 



boorishness o 



d upon the intolerance and insen- 
t and, by implication, the laugh- 



BUrns and Hot Lips can be laughed at with immunity be- 
cause they are charicatures and stereotypes, too broadly 
drawn to the fully human. The stereotypes give us a dis- 

them safe targets. In the same way, the good guys are 

Trapper battle hypocrisy and bring life tc 

belliousness, plus their expertise as surgeons, make them 
likeable and identifiable, even despite their cruel streaks. 

their integration with the group; if they do not detract 
from the free-wheeling values of the MASH unit, they are 
positive characters. When they threaten to upset the main- 

humiliated and scorned. MASH is more like a summer camp 
than an adult military establishment; its anti-authority 
values, emphasis on fun and games, absence of relationships 

give MASH an adolescent quality. This immaturity is re- 
flected in the puerile nature of many of the jokes and the 
hidden degradation and superficiality of much of the humor 






viously right values and with 
have, had they been treated humanely, 



fully defined 



anti-homosexuality would be patently offensive. If the 
importance of winning and the rampant cheating in the foot- 
ball game had been treated with more subtlety, the football 
game could have become a serious satire rather than a 



e movie settles for , 



ad, easy, slapstick presentation. 

s the adolescent 




elaborate 



pill that will kill hi 



As she snuggles nex 







Painless wakes up and regains his form. The next day, he 

This scene is undeniably funny; the religious parody, 
the elaborate and meaningless ceremony and seriousness, and 



mental condition all contribute to the scene's sucoess. 



The idea, however, is devoid of any subtlety or insight; 

ters. Regardless of the charm and humor of the scene, all 
its details reinforce the final effect. Once that is ob- 



third viewing, the s 



In addition to the lack of subtlety, the scene is 
fueled by an adolescent assumption, the idea of a large 
penis and sexual pleasure. Painless is defined in the 

more notable, just as it makes Dish's reactions explainable 
a first viewing, the scene rests upon an adolescent preoc- 



cupation with the size of Painless' penis. And like all 
adolescent jokes, the humor wears thin after a while. 



diffuseness, ambiguity, and texture, are used in MASH to 

inhumanity of war, the military, and religion. The over- 
lapping dialogue, for instance, does not add levels of 
structure and contrasting detail but merely reinforces al- 
ready apparent relationships. At the film's beginning, for 
example, the women officers are almost inaudibly talking 

particular nurse's figure, they only reiterate the loose 

one asks if a patient is an enlisted man, who get bigger 
stitches than the officers, the satire on the military is 
repeated. Like the cheerleaders' chant, "69 is Divine," 

they add another laugh, a slightly different version of the 



on the soundtrack, is an editing device, and provides struc- 
ture and foreshadowing with its announcements of missing 
drugs, VD epidemics, absurd regulations, and medical warn- 
ings. It predicts Ho John's attempt at draft evasion by 



and courting of safe and predetermined audience responses. 



addition to playing music that directly 
visuals, as with the "Sayonara" to Burns 



usually war movies like The Halls of Montezuma and are an 
nounced by the reading of the films' press releases. At 
mask 's end, the loudspeaker tells us the film is over by 
reading mask 's own press blurb and introducing the cast. 



and unmistakably dramatic movie music of the hero; Burns' 

wood's traditional inability to treat sex naturally; Hawk- 
eye's and Trapper's roles when they deal with the military 

lusions do not seem artistically purposeful. Instead, they 

the film's focus, the allusions are cute but superficial 



cessful gimmick. 



cracks and sexual games. The juxtaposition 
gruesome blood is effective, making real the 

breaking new ground for the film. 









r really develops 



a predictable and easy device. 

forms that shackle people to false values and legitimise 
inept leaders. Impulses and spontaneity, HASH says, are 
more important and more beneficial; if followed, they wi] 
lead to at least temporary happiness. Thus, Hot hips 



learns by the e 






Despite the h 



t Lips' transformation. 



and superficial good will generated 






has understandable a 
ro-drug references th 









perhaps justified MASH 's style. Now, seven years later, 

i the movie and badly dates it. 



o single-minded, unambiguous. 




Although Brewster McCloud is as broad, 
reliant on stereotypes as MASH , it is also 
innocent, and personal movie. Rather than 
realism, Brewster is a fantasy, developing 
that works on its own values. 

The first scene establishes Brewster 's 
brief speech by the lecturer, who tells us 
o fly or at least i 



ways wanted t 
true flight seemed to offer, 
"The Star Spangled Banner" i 






off key. "And 1 want that scoreboard lighted...." As the 
band begins again, the credits also reappear; this time, the 
scoreboard has rockets bursting everywhere. As the credits 
continue, we read "title song - Prances Scott Key." Rather 
than .sophistication and subtlety, then, the humor is obvious 

Brewster drives Abraham Wright, the invalid, almost senile 
brother of Wilbur's and Orville's, on his weekly collection 
of the rents from his chain of rest homes. Obscenely ugly. 



Wright obviously enjoys himself; he hideously giggles, in- 

lievable and comic villain. So when he and his wheelchair 
are pushed onto the freeway, when his body lands on the 
pavement, desecreated by bird droppings (an integral part 
of the killer's modus operandi) , we laugh. Too broadly 
drawn to assume human dimensions, Wright becomes a carica- 
ture, a cardboard villain created only for our amusement. 

Underneath the scene 1 s absurdity, however; lie subtle 
details that increase the discerning viewer's enjoyment. 
Reflecting the film's concern with birds, the rest homes 
have bird names like the Feathered Nest Rest Home and the 

plate reads OWL, another detail reinforcing the aviary 

in the car, Altman adds an arresting visual pattern by 
shooting the action through the colored automatic windows. 
As we hear the two characters, we watch the playful motion 

ing, or revealing Brewster, Wright, and Houston. Finally, 
the dialogue, often lost in the visual confusion and quick 
pacing, is surprisingly funny. As an old woman gives 
Wright the week’s rent, for example, he asks her if she 
has given him everything. As she tells him he has "every 



As he drives away, he excitedly cries, "Two big Georges." 
Although a funny line, it is relatively hidden; the line 
may not add any ramifications or refinements to the overall 
situation, but it rewards the more attentive viewer unsatis- 

films, the details will do more than just support and re- 
inforce the main idea. In Brewster , however, the hidden 
details add to the film's single-minded, broadly comic mood. 

Even the movie allusions, usually Altman's most subtle 
device, add to Brewster 's outrageous absurdity. Margaret 
Hamilton plays both the witch in The Wizard of Oz and Miss 
Daphne in Brewster . She dies in Brewster when a black 
"nigger" bird opens her giant bird cage {shaped like the 
Astrodome) and it falls on her . The wicked witch, of course, 
was killed when Dorothy's house fell on top of her. As the 
camera pans across Miss Daphne's body, we hear an AM radio 



news report of her death. While the radio announcer de- 
scribes her red, white, and blue acrylic knit dress and 
red rhinestone shoes, we see that she is wearing the ruby 
red slippers of The Wizard . Thus, all of the scene's 
visual and verbal components combine to make its single, 
absurd, unrefined joke. 

Unlike the later Altman movies, the sound and back- 
ground visuals do not extend the scene's boundaries, but 
merely reinforce the primary idea. When the radio an- 



see them. The lecturer describes 



Crested Peacock; we 



then see Frank Shaft, the strong, silent, professional de- 

we see him open a suitcase full of turtleneck sweaters of 
different colors, since Altman had already made his 
point, this second illustration is repetitive and unneces- 



As befitting the 



detracted from its effective- 



ness. Since Brewster is a fantasy, however, the c 
need not be realistic, only recognisable. Frank S 
example, is defined by his serious and vain ; 

Re is a villain and his suicide is laughable not because he 
is the most serious threat to Louise and Brewster, but 
primarily because of his tiresome pomposity. Johnson, on 

not have the title or the reputation to uphold. Unlike 
Shaft, Johnson bumbles his way through the job; he whispers 






Louise works the same way; she murders 

d and a person, she bathes like a bird, h 
back from her raw shorn wings, resorts t 



sounds 



der emotional st 
f flying. She t 






be free. They don't even believe they can be free. . ..some- 
thing happens to them as they grow, and then they turn more 
and more towards earth. And when they experience sex, they 
simply settle for it." 

Because she understands the value and elusiveness of 
freedom, Louise acts like Brewster's mother, making sure 

energy and destroy him, rocking him to sleep by singing 
lullabies, and protecting him from strangers wishing him 
harm. Like most mothers, Louise can seem unduly repres- 

Louise, then, offers Brewster the knowledge and ability 
to fly. She has the film's secret; she alone has refused 
to compromise and knows where freedom can be found. Loyal 
to Brewster, she represents his chance to be free; when she 
kills Wright, Miss Daphne, Breen, Billy Joe, Shaft, and 

In a similar vein, Brewster becomes a positive charac- 

The archetypal individual, Brewster does not have personal- 
ity or individuality; he is more like a blank face that 
each of us can identify with and substitute ourselves. 



free, Brewster i: 




Thus, Shaft is the typical professional; Wright, the 
all too familiar money-mad absentee landlord; Louise, ma- 
ternally loyal and perceptive, we can identify their roles 
and, within the context of the story, believe them. In- 
is the most original, the least developed, and the most 
typical of the later Altman films. Hope, the health food 

supplying Brewster with health foods, she crawls under a 
blanket and thrashes herself into sexual ecstasy. Unlike 

are already engaged in making the larger fantasy work; al- 
though a minor and specific character, her strange actions 
overload our imaginations by drawing attention to the 

ineffective and distracting character. 








lecturer is original and very funny. Another effective and 
more peripheral scene is introduced by the lecturer. While 
the lecturer talks about the bathing habits of certain 
species, Altman cuts to a shot of Louise frolicking in the 
Astrodome's fountain. Suddenly, she becomes aware of the 
camera, smiles, and covers her breasts. Although it has 
nothing to do with the rest of the movie, her action con- 



movie allusions are also handled with subtlety. When Shaft 









doctors from Boston who 
round and wait until a 



from Dover? Altman teases us 



and Fall of a Birdwatcher . Although shown three times, the 
full title is visible only the first time; by obscuring the 
last three words of the title, Altman playfully frustrates 

does not really further the story, but provides a comical 
visual aside. The Lost World River Adventure has a native 
god with rolling eyes; the tour guide explains that it is 
called Shirley's temple. Should they paint Shirley's temple 
black, she wonders. Perhaps more than any other detail, 
Shirley's temple foreshadows Altman's eye for the cinemati- 
cally absurd and his willingness to make a place for it in 



More interestingly than these details, isolated from 
the rest of the film, is the flying sequence in the middle 
of the film; it compresses the entire film into a single, 

of rolling clouds, beautiful vistas, and the true freedom 




Even with these inventive, subtle details, Brewster 
remains an obvious and simple movie, a fantasy. Because 
it is a personal little fable, the individual viewer must 
decide for himself whether it successfully captures and 
holds his imagination. More universally demonstrable, how- 
ever, are the values that structure the fantasy. Since 



"The desire to fly has been ever-present in the mind 
of Man,” the lecturer begins, at once establishing that 
Brewster's guest is primal and universal. But, Louise 
cautions Brewster, the ability to fly and to be free be- 
comes possible only after intensive training, discipline, 
and sacrifices. As an archetypal individual, Brewster is 
warned about sex and passion, which hinder discipline and 
obscure the vision of freedom. Sex causes people, Louise 
tells him, to rationalize their lives and to ultimately be- 
lieve what society tells them. 



cipation and 
proves irresistible; 



i, of course, is Suzanne. (Hope 
Brewster's active sexual parti- 

fly. And although Louise's ad- 
Before Brewster has even 



vice has seemed typically u 

most fashionable neighborhood. As soon as he tells her of 

quickly gets Brewster out of her house, reports him, wins 

film, her reluctance to lie next to a confessed mass mur- 
derer would be understandable. In this movie, however, 

does destroy him; a passionate woman does betray him. 

The climactic scene is at once heartbreaking and ex- 
hilirating. Louise, who has grasped the situation, has 

dering Weeks) . Brewster knows he must fly. He puts on 



ment, triumphantly soars to the top of the Astrodome. As 
he rises, we remember the lecturer's initial warning. "It 

enclosures to protect both Nan and Birds. But if so. it 

as the case may be." Although we hope for Brewster’s es- 

will never equal the natural flight of birds. Brewster plum- 

man cuts to a tiny section of the Astrodome, which is filled 

up and the Greatest Show on Earth, a circus of sorts, pours 
into the arena, we realise that the circus is Brewster 1 s 
costumed cast taking a curtain call; even the dead charac- 
ters are resurrected and take their bows. Only Brewster, 
the individual who has tried to be free, remains dead. His 



Although Altman has prepared us for Brewster's death, 

we would have believed it. But Brewster does not break 
away; he fails. This inability to escape reveals how deeply 
Altman believes in man's inherent limitations. 



Perhaps Brewster does not deserve to escape because he 

of the white bird! most importantly, the freedom of flight 
was never even verified. Freedom is not only attainable, 
then, but may also be illusory. 

The refusal to let the individual exist in a state of 
freedom connects Brewster , which superficially seems so 
different, with Altman's other, more realistic films. Not 
only are the values the same; some of Brewster will be used 
in other Altman movies. Abraham Wright 's priorities and 

in The Long Good-bye ; Shaft's slow motion death in water 
will reappear in McCabe and The Long Good-bye ; his repeated 
use of "Jesus Christ" will characterise Images ' Hugh's 
speech pattern; the climactic death by betrayal will resur- 
face in Thieves Like Us. But most importantly, all the 
films will concern themselves with the individual's inability 



Although Brewster is ; 

me, and more original than MASH , which was an adolescent 
lection of stereotypes and slapstick comedy, it still 
s not have the tightened structure, totally integrated 






CHAPTER 5 



forgotten movie of our time. It is a serious and compre- 

story , and a stunning photographic essay. Finally, McCabe 
is Altman's western. Like his other films that deal with 
a particular genre, McCabe does not just refine the western 
but carefully uses the genre's conventions to expose its 
false underlying assumptions. 

Until recently, the western was probably the film genre 
closest to people's hearts. One explanation of this appeal 
may be that the western directly and positively deals with 
the myths and legends surrounding America's development. 
These films told of simpler times when values were less am- 



immediately identifiable. The whore with the heart of gold 
is there, as is the doctor who cares for people no matter 
how drunk he gets. The driver is, beneath his cowardly 
and comical exterior, solidly dependable; the serious and 
responsible demeanor of the sherrif disguises a perceptive 



man, the meek and ineffectual liquor salesman, the prim 
and repressive society matrons, the hypocritical hanker 

course, there is the hero, Ringo, played, not surprisingly. 



fay John Wayne. 

Ringo is a living representation of moral goodness. 

He has the right dream of a simple, rural e 

however, that his dreams may be postponed or shelved when 
they conflict with his civic and familial responsibilities, 

ample, he must revenge the murder, even though it means 
facing the three killers by himself. His failure to stand 
up to them would be sanctioning the rule of the gun and 

personality, he has no real choice but to accept the re- 
sponsibility to act in a traditionally moral fashion. 

In addition to being moral, Ringo is physically strong 
and has unpretentious and accurate instincts. His strength 
is important because it gives him credibility and the 
ability to fight for his values. His instincts are help- 
ful because they enable him to see through the facades of 

s immediately that Dallas, despite any reputa- 



kind, generous, decent, and worthy 



Ringo, then, is a man of superior moral ana physical 
strength and of unerring instinct. He is not, however, 
the only admirable character; others in Stagecoach are 

is able to sober himself up and successfully operate. The 

and avert a massacre. Even the sherrif is humane enough 

morally justified and thus allows Ringo and Dallas to ride 
off and live their Rind of life. Despite societal roles 

are solidly dependable and successful. 

nign worlds, the bad people are punished, often by the 
same good people. The banker gets caught with the stolen 

die, but they will be killed by Ringo himself. Ringo's 
avenging of his brother's death and his subsequent reward 
is, in fact, typical of the western's values. Because of 
the physical roughness of the terrain and society, the good 

will be rewarded, just as the evil ones will be destroyed 









cCabe and Mrs. Miller . Altman' s West is 
e simply does not see the pioneer romanc 

h seem no different from the residents o 
blue collar neighborhood. Growth is 



Presbyterian Chu 















West. Altman is saying, was 
example of suburban sprawl. 

Like countless O' 

linen tablecloth and silver whiskey flask and pays much 
attention to his sophisticated, if inappropriate, hat and 
coat. Even this pose, however, is enough for Presbyterian 
Church. The town's one bar-hotel-restaurant, Sheehan's, 
is overcrowded, unfinished, dirty, poorly lit, and uncom- 
fortable. It is peopled with unshaven, undistinguished 
white men, including a messy drunk, a self-conscious dandy 
and his slavish admirer, a faceless g 
and Sheehan, a physically repulsive a 

original settlers represents quite a change f 
in Stagecoach , who made a much greater a 
impact than McCabe 's characters. 



se-picking small 



d individualistic 



Although McCabe looks more like the hero than any of 
these others, he is still no John Wayne. Although he seems 
cool and self-assured and although Sheehan says he is the 
well-known gunfighter who killed Bill Roundtree, Sheehan 
also says that McCabe's nickname is Pudgy. McCabe's de- 
fensiveness and refusal to talk about his past and his in- 
sistence that he is a "businessman" give some believability 
to Sheehan's story. The nickname Pudgy and McCabe's ridi- 
culous aside to Sheehan, "if a frog had wings, he wouldn't 
bump his ass so much," indicate that McCabe's reputation and 
ability as a gunfighter are considerably exaggerated. 

his business is pimping and gambling. Realizing that the 
town of men is a major and captive market, McCabe buys 
three prostitutes and three tents and then begins building 
a more permanent house for his business venture. Even be- 



bing customers and giving McCabe trouble. 

Unlike Dallas who is getting run out of town, Mrs. 
Miller is seen arriving at Presbyterian Church. She imme- 
diately proves herself a more astute businessperson than 
McCabe. She tells the skeptical McCabe that he could make 
a great deal of money if he would only expand his vision. 



got to spend money to make money," s 
s involve "a proper sporting house w 






they get a taste of it," she answers, "they'll like it all 
right." Mrs. Miller convinces McCabe that he does not have 
the experience to run a decent whorehouse and prevails; 
they form a partnership that will bring an expensive, sophis- 
ticated business establishment to town. 

Another sign of encroaching civilisation arrives with 

train. Like many of the men, she is ordinary and relatively 
nondescript in appearance. Although her hair is frazzled 
like Mrs. Miller's, she is frail, frightened, and apologe- 

potential for a family and a middle class in Presbyterian 



The whores and the Jeffersons c 

into the town life. They are not degenerate or vulgar, 
but are decent, religious people accustomed to a relatively 
comfortable standard of living. Rather than sabotage the 
town’s moral character, they complement its developing mid- 

the whores come the town's first black family, the Jeffer- 
sons. Immaculate and polite, they are the town's second 
.most interesting looking couple (after, of course, McCabe 
and Mrs. Miller) and sound like the roost educated. The 
Jeffersons, being black, add another ethnic group to the 
town's population and also another level to the class system. 






sient. First are Sears and Hollander, representatives of 
the conglomerate Harrison Shaunessy, who want to buy the 
businesses in Presbyterian Church. The stereotypical hypi 
risy of the banker and the comic ineffectiveness of the 

one of a bland, rather petty organization man. Despite H. 
rison Shaunessy's low offers and tendency to capitalize o: 



Mrs. Miller, "than look at you." Because he is drunk and in- 
juring up a different group of company representatives, 
town. Like Ringo, the cowboy is primarily a rural creature 

store and to have fun at McCabe's whorehouse. He relies 
on Presbyterian Church as a city and a service centerj he 

becoming a metropolitan area. Unlike Ringo, the cowboy, as 



killers who are to remove McCabe. Although these three are 
as dishonorable and ruthless as the three in stagecoach , 
there is a major difference. McCabe's killers are company 
agents who want to kill McCabe because he is an obstacle 






though they 







e sherrif. Instead, he finds a lawyer, an ex-Sena- 
is the film's most articulate, most civilized 
ther than help McCabe, the lawyer sees an 
boost his own reputation and political ca- 
reer. Thus, he inspires McCabe with talk of noble prin- 
ciples and heroic dreams and sends him back to Presbyterian 
Church and certain death. The lawyer, like the company, 
is the product of civilization, indifferent to another' s 
individual's plea for help unless it can directly further 
his own ends. S tagecoach ' s innate sense of community and 
justice has no place here. 



Although the winter landscape mutes the sound of gunshots, 
the fire is seen and draws everyone but McCabe, the surviv- 
ing killer, Butler, and Mrs. Miller (who is in an opium den) 






building/ a hollow symbol that has never even been us 
And while they celebrate its salvaging/ McCabe dies. 

Mrs. Miller , then, is a comprehensive indictment of the 

there has been social, religious, and racial hypocrisy and 
abuses; from the beginning, the corporation h 

heroes or any romance, just people trying to 
they can with foroes bigger a; 

society. According to McCabe , the id. 
the functions of the church and the si 
served for marriage, and the notion o: 

may help keep people satisfied o: 
help them transcend the basic conditions of life. 

The first fact of Altman's West that is different f: 
the mure traditional presentation is his presentation of 



bankruptcy o 
important t< 
ia of racial equality. 



addition 






dangerous and difficult 



done by the Chinese. This theme is reinforced later in the 
film in a callous speech of Butler's. In it, he argues for 
the introduction of a profitable new mining technique. Its 

but since they will be Chinks, the hazard seems of small 
importance. 

Mrs. Miller is the only character to violate the color 
line. First she brings in an Oriental whore, who is the 
source of much curiosity and crude jokes ("If her eyes are 

acceptable only because she is under Mrs. Miller's auspices. 
More importantly, Mrs. Miller goes to the Chinese section 
to smoke her opium. She does not go for companionship or 
out of a belief in social justice, however, but to escape 
into, oblivion. 

The black people, the Jeffersons, are also illustra- 
tive of the segregated nature of early America. The Jef- 
fersons are astonishingly good looking, well-dressed, and 
well-mannered. More than any other characters except 
McCabe and Mrs. Miller, they hint at interesting pasts and 
potential development. Although they meet with polite 
acceptance and live in the white part of town, they never 
enter into its social fabric. Mo one makes an effort at 
winning their friendship. When Coyle is killed, they are 
by themselves and remain so; when the church burns, they 






stead, they slink away, alone and unnoticed. Despite their 
obvious assets, the Jeff arsons never really integrate into 
the town, functioning only in a business role and in etner- 



The myth of racial equality is not the only empty con- 
cept; another is the institution of organised religion. 

To deal with this issue, Altman uses one of the film's most 



interesting characters, the preacher. 



The preacher seems a little strange from 

other characters uncomfortable. Ill at east a 
humans, he only once is shown with dignity. I 



beginning. 






shot, the preacher is shown working on the church's steeple. 
Even in this shot, however, the dignity is derived from the 
beauty of the natural setting; when juxtaposed against his 
apparent indifference to people, his solitary efforts at 
building a structure loses their nobility. 



The preacher's character is definitely established by 
his actions in the scene where Coyle is struck on the head. 
Coyle is clearly in need of medical and spiritual help; as 



everyone rushes to Coyle' s aid, the preacher pulls his 
collar up and sneaks away unnoticed. Although he has sup- 
posedly dedicated his life to doing God's will and helping 
people, his only real dedication is to his unfinished, un- 



The following funeral scene is an amusing yet poignant 
counterpoint to the preacher's behavior. Armed with the 



on her hands will turn to religion,” we see the choir, com- 
posed of the whores and the Jeffersons. Their tuneless 

into near certain death. Ironically, this action leads to 
the preacher's own death and to the burning of his build- 
ing. And when the citizens work together to save the 

they seem shallow and foolish and their victory seems hol- 

respectability is false. Ida comes to Presbyterian Church 
to marry a man she has never seen. Unlike Dallas and 



The following funeral scene is an amusing yet poignant 
counterpoint to the preacher's behavior. Armed with the 
knowledge of the preacher's conduct and Mrs. Miller's early 
remark that "nine times out of ten a good whore with time 

posed of the whores and the Jeffersons. Their tuneless 
screeching and religious fervor seem at first incongruous 
and humorous, but their basic decency 



spect for life and death become moving. Although their 
faith significantly is not shared by the more worldly Mc- 
Cabe, Mrs. Miller, or the dandy and although their vision 
is both misplaced and deluded, their essential goodness and 
humanity shine. 




structure and then celebrate their success as McCabe dies, 
they seem shallow and foolish and their victory seems hol- 
low and unimportant. 

Like organized religion, which reveres material goods 
rather than human life, the concept of marriage and social 
respectability is false. Ida comes to Presbyterian Church 
to marry a man she has never seen. Unlike Dallas and 






ordered 



Ida's marriage, which i. 
arrangement tha* 

As Ida is walking with Coyle one night, a man asks 
he has seen her at Mrs. Miller's. Coyle forgets that s; 



Miller's girls are respected memfc 

Coyle, however, reacts blindly; r 
he must defend any slur against h 
the traditional 



transaction, : 



t that offensive. 






d foolishness of social violence. Like many violent 
e fight happens spontaneously and has unfor- 

lf-indulgent, shortsighted, and meaningless. The remark 
at triggers the fight is almost inoffensive and certainly 
t worth dying for. Coyle, however, reacts according to 

a manly defense of his property, 
o defend her (and ultimately his) 
•honor, he is killed and thus places Ida's survival, rather 



In an ironic twist that makes Coyle's death doubly mean- 
ingless, Ida ends up at Mrs. Miller's. Because she has no 
other alternative, she must become a whore. Still, she is 



nervous about her new calling; she never really liked sex 






ad. Here you' 11 be doing the 

d." And she is right; within a 
d enjoying herself. Of all the 
e cowboy leave; she 

s honor and fulfillment, then, 
but in Mrs. Miller's whorehouse, 
f violence in American society 

he cowboy. Despite his menac- 
is a good-natured innocent 

filiating people, when the cowboy leaves Mrs. Miller's, he 
missed a bottle he was shooting at. To save face, the 



few days, Ida is smiling a: 

any of the others, she finds 
not in a loveless marriage, bu 

dealt with in the killing of t 



without any violent tendencies. While h 



he cannot hit anything and just carries his gun for show, 
the cowboy backs away. As he turns to leave, he listens 
to the gunfighter's offer to inspect his gun; perhaps the 









not a romanticized hero, £ 



m's pace is brutally and cruelly 

we feel anger, hatred, waste, 
the gunfighter as he really is - 
n honorable man of courage, or 



d social problem, bu 

ordinary people. And be- 

e gunfighter kills coldly, whether for sport, money 

Because he makes all the rules, he holds all 

necessary punishment or avenging of the gunfighter; he may 
or may not be killed himself, but nothing can happen to 
make his victim' s death meaningful . Rather than being an 
f adoration, then, the gunfighter and his violent 

The three gunfighters are not, it must be remembered, 
r McCabe and in town by accident; they are employees 






of a major company on a business assignment. Too big, 
powerful, and anonymous to worry about conventional morality, 
Harrison Shaunessy routinely engages hired killers to get 
rid of difficult businessmen. That a corporation would 
act this way this early adds a new dimension to violence 
in America, in fact, the corporation is seen here as the 

America from the very beginning. It waited and watched; as 
soon as the groundwork and initial efforts o: 
individual proved to be successful, the corporation m 
in, assuming total control at any cost. Because of i 
size and power, the corporation was able to operate w 

thing in its path. 



The corporation's power explains the faceless, small 
nature of the film's individuals. The corporation is so 
big that the individual must manage to make a life for him- 
self around or through it, almost always serving it as deal 
maker, hired killer, manager, clerk, construction worker, 
or supplier of goods and services to it and its employees. 



Bather than translate tl 

duals acknowledge the cc 
tioning its tactics or p 
around, the individuals 
morally responsible. As 



c superiority of the 
3 realistic power, the indivi- 
ration's strength by not ques- 
:. When the company is not 

>n as the Company is involved. 



however , the individuals become frightened and servile par- 

This change can be seen in the townspeople's behavior. 

good and generous behavior. When Coyle is hit and hurt, 
for example, everyone but the preacher rushes to his aid. 

to wish her well. Most importantly, when the church catches 
fire, everyone is capable of working in harmony towards the 

sells out, no one blames him or resents him for selling out 
to the mob. When McCabe, on the other hand, is drunkenly 
arrogant to the corporation and tempts its wrath, the towns- 
people do not respect his courage, but feel he is a fool. 
Later, when McCabe is humiliated by Butler, the townspeople 
do not try to ease McCabe's humiliation. The dandy is 
openly contemptuous of him; the lawyer is condescending; 
the rest are made uneasy. Rather than involve themselves, 









boy is killed, the townspeople are forced to witness the 
murder. As in the scene with McCabe and Butler, no one 

they had, they too probably would have been killed. Al- 

is understandably stronger. Although each is resigned to 



The perception that America 
through the last decade, it seems 



.s a corporate wasteland 
almost taken for granted. 

frontier pioneers who 
m lies and distortions 
> same. Unlike Staqe- 
idians or outlaws; the 



only Indian in McCabe is a chippy and outlaws are so non- 



in portable boxes and 
they are conquered. 



and Mrs. Miller keep all their money 

threat; through cooperative action. 
No, the only realy enemy is the Com- 




he can be flawed and even somewhat ordinary, his story and 
his relationship with Mrs. Miller can be more realistic and 
more moving. 

self-assured, sophisticated, and successful. Establishing 
himself as a businessman, his immediate plans for a gambling 



casino and whorehouse overshadow his obvious shortcomings 
as an operator and thrust him into the additional role of 

when he tries to form a partnership that would prohibit any 
other establishment's opening without their approval and 
subsequent cut. McCabe turns Sheehan down, telling him 
that he has come "to get away from" partners, even though 



ever, he will profit from his partnership and die be 
of his failure to make the right deal.) "Sheehan," I 
characteristically concludes, "if a frog had wings, : 

Although their conversation is interrupted by o: 
McCabe's whores who is slashing a customer with a kn 
much has been said. McCabe states that he does not 



partners but is amenable to deals. He is soon, however, 
to make Mrs. Miller a partner, which is wise because he is 
generally incapable of running a business. And ultimately 
he will be killed because he does not make a deal or even 
understand the deal making process. Rather than act like 
a businessman, he treats Sears and Hollander rudely. 

Sheehan is right when he tells McCabe that a business- 



understanding that there is a safety in numbers. McCabe, 
however, never really understands the power of the corpora- 
tion; when he lets his drunkeness and personal problems 
interfere with his business aonduct, he ruins himself. 



McCabe's frog joke is the first concrete indication that 
he relies on instinct rather than intelligence. He ob- 
viously meant the joke to be a witty, incisive remark that 
would make him look intelligent and urbane. Instead of 
making him look smart, however, it reveals his stupidity. 

McCabe's pretensions are evident during his first meet- 



e and as yet unannounced reason for approaching him, 
takes her to Sheehan's and clumsily buys everyone 
drinks. After this transparent attempt to impress 
e dramatically drinks his usual raw egg in front of 



her. To let him know that she sees through his actions and 
that they are unnecessary, she playfully pulls him close 
and whispers, "If you want to make like such a fancy dude, 
you ought to wear something besides that cheap Jockery 
Club perfume." 



e deflates his airs and poses! 

cated. Mrs. Miller, then, exposes his image of a cool, shrewd, 
and fast thinking businessman. His inexperience, lack of 
imagination and foresight, and reluctance to take chances 



are revealed by his inability to answer even one of Mrs. 
Miller's many questions and by his hesitation at becoming 
her partner. In the end, however, Mrs. Miller's confident 
and intimidating recitation of the obvious advantages to 
the partnership and her demand for an immediate answer 
railroad McCabe into acceptance. But even though the 



partnership is financially and personally successful, McCabe 
never loses his initial reservations about the arrangement. 

reputation. Extremely insecure, he places an inordinate 
amount of importance on what others think of him. As such, 
he feels the need for others to regard him as sophisticated, 
successful, and urbane. Mrs. Miller, however, not only 
sees through his facade, but also understands his need for 



threatening to him. 

An even greater concern for McCabe is his partnership 
with a woman. He cannot escape the feeling that his part- 
nership with a woman involves a compromise of his mascu- 
linity, a public admission of insufficiency, and a result- 
ing loss of respect from her and the community. He is also 
unable to reconcile her business and professional acumen 
as a whore with their personal relationship as lovers and 
remains continually frustrated c 



Because McCabe is 
others judge him, ther 
and private McCabe. H 
kept them non-verbal f 
articulate them. "I'v 
self , clearly wishing 
Actually, McCabe' 
Although 



o acutely concerned with the way 
a large gap between the public 
s hidden his inner thoughts and 
.0 long, he has forgotten how to 

,rries about revealing himself are 
; dreams are not great, they are 






n honorable reputation, a successful 



ability to provide 



n intellectual o 



o get £ 



n particularly intelli- 



e opportunities i 






importantly, he is nev< 
charming. These private virtues excuse the obnoxious ele- 
ments of his public personality, notably his incompetence 
and delusions of sophistication and resulting need to con- 
stantly prove himself. Had McCabe been less concerned with 
trying to seem like a successful businessman and more con- 
cerned with being John McCabe, he would have been happier 

Instead, of course, McCabe tries to maintain his pub- 
lic image, even though his attempts lead to increasingly 
greater frustrations. McCabe releases these frustrations 
through his drunken binges. Unfortunately, Sears and Hol- 
lander arrive during one of these binges. Driven into 
drinking because of his feelings of inadequacy, McCabe 
overcompensates by trying to impress the two agents with 

suits the already irritable Hollander, who feels the corpora- 
tion mistreated him by sending him on such a simple and re- 
mote assignment. "That man is an ass," he tells the more 

leaves, he triggers the film's remaining events, once 
started, the events cannot be stopped. Thus, McCabe's 



inability to be himself and his failure to control his pub- 
lic personality drive away the people he cannot afford to 



When Sears and Hollander leave and the deal falls 
through, Mrs. Miller begs him to sneak out of town. Not 
only does McCabe refuse to consider her suggestions, but 
he gets offended by it. "Go into business with a woman, 
he mutters, "and you can't expect her to have reason to 
respect you." Thinking he will not sneak away because t 
townspeople will think him cowardly, Mrs. Miller loses h 
patience. "What are these people to you?" she yells, "W 



McCabe's refusal to run away involves more, however, 
than simple pride. After all, McCabe suffered humiliation 
in his dealings with Sears and Hollander and then was will- 
ing to grovel to Butler in front of his former employees. 



desperate search for . 
Something in McCabe, ! 
completely, leaving h 



s also willing t 




dreams 



McCabe may not be taken in my the lawyer's high prin- 
ciples and may be using them in an attempt to impress Mrs. 
Miller and to inflate his own importance, but he does be- 



- lieVL that he should "stick his hand in the fire and find 
out What he's made of." He is no longer thinking about 
other people's opinions, but is acting out of his beliefs 



tile, and wasteful code, 1 
public and private selves. 

sourcefully for the first 
he does elude the killers 
manages to kill all three, 



his self-respect. Although he 

And perhaps because he believes 

:or a surprisingly long period, 
and almost escapes. Although 
he does achieve a dignity of 



While McCabe may put on airs of sophistication, Mrs. 



e sparkle; she is both teasing him and i 
even though she devours four eggs and e 



plate of stew. 



famous eating scene from 
she is intriguing, sexy, 



Tom Jones . Totally self-confident. 






fascinating. 



Because Mrs. Miller has so much self-respect and con- 
fidence, she feels no shame in her profession. Unlike Mc- 
Cabe, she is an excellent businessman. Also unlike McCabe, 












s, Mrs. Miller charges five dollars for 

The first time we see McCabe in bed with Mrs. Miller 
is the first time their relationship is clarified. Mc- 

Mrs. Miller ("Money and pain....”) and her impatience and 
disappointment over his inability to manage his affairs are 
intense enough to suggest a deeper personal relationship 
than a simple business partnership. Also, the delicacy 
with which Birdie tells McCabe that he cannot talk to Mrs. 
Miller because she has "company" and his uncomfortable, em- 

when the two are shown in bed, we are not really surprised. 

the covers and pulls the blanket up over her nose. All we 
see is her eyes, excited, radiantly alive, and happy. Be- 
fore McCabe came in, she had smoked some opium; for the first 

rather than dragging her into oblivion. Her response to 
McCabe and his presence is not mercenary, then, but loving. 
Mrs. Miller' s charging McCabe is consistent and crucial 
e says, she asks nothing from no 

r boarding house in San Francisco. 



. Miller stops 
Smiling, McCabe gets 



Living alone in the present and preparing for the future 

after all, is the responsibility of caring for oneself. 
More importantly, Mrs. Miller, unlike McCabe, has enough 
self-respect and awareness to separate her business and 
professional lives. Xn her case, this means separating 






abe and Mrs. Miller are in love, all 
ar love. This love cannot include 
welfare for his pleasure. To remain 
p her self-respect and equality in 




She stops crying and pleads with him to : 

When she sees that McCabe will not be swayed, 
herself and closes the discussion with an abrupt "( 
meal." She knows that everything has been said; si 







uncomfortable and painful. 









to death; Mrs. Miller's soul will be temporarily frozen 
in the opium den's oblivion, it is a depressing ending 
for we are forced to watch the destruction of two people 

Although there is no way to see McCabe's ending as a 
happy one, there are elements of optimism, hope, and beauty 

face their fates alone, they are no different than any of 



us. And before that end, they are able tc 
tionship based upon mutual respect and cai 

the other as an individual with feelings and integrity. 
Although they do not have a very long relationship, it is 
intense and beautiful, punctuated with moments of happiness 
and total commitment. Because they attain these moments, 
they do create that "momentary stay against confusion"; 
they really live. And that is a major accomplishment. 

and large number of characters, McCabe appears to be a 

however, deceptive; the movie is tightly controlled, direct. 



There are many characters in McCabe : t! 

• lawyer, the killers, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 
character is developed, however; the faceles; 



a original 



r occupation as poll- 



are defined primarily in terms of th 
tician, gunfighter, company lackey. Only t 
his slavish admirer do not seem related to the rest of the 

central characters and theme. McCabe's first three whores, 
for example, exist primarily to illustrate his incompetence 
and limited vision, especially when contrasted with Mrs. 
Miller's ladies. The black couple comment on the racist 

America. 



a of an unbiased and helpful legal system in 

all are used to serve a specific function. 

the film is arresting and provocative; his refusal to help 
Coyle and his inching away from the accident is an unmis- 
takable indictment of religious hypocrisy. He is also 
used as the agent of McCabe's destruction; as such, he ba- 






te assumes this important function, 
t making with the preacher bi 



te function 

:e straight- 
; really change 



e preacher a 






a character becomes dwarfed by the 

ter, the change destroys the subtlety and diffuseness the 
preacher brings to the earlier part of the film. 

timidity, tension. When Coyle dies and leaves her without 
any means of support and without anyplace to go, her logical 

Altman has Mrs. Miller calm her down and explain how whoring 
is as, if not more, honest as marriage. Through this con- 
versation, Altman explicitly justifies Mrs. Miller and the 

With decency and pride, their honesty need not be questioned. 
When Mrs. Miller talks about her position, her speech seems 
unnecessary. Also, because of this conversation, Ida be- 
comes more than a character; her transformation from a 
scared girl to a mature, sensual woman becomes more than a 
happy change. Instead, Ida is turned into a before/after 
d proof of Mrs. Miller's argument. Al- 
in McCabe , Altman does not seem ready to let his minor 



though s 







normally are thought to buffer the harsh ai 
realities of life are empty forms that are 
powers, the corporations. The individual 1 ! 
these archaic institutions foster a false i 



3 invisible 
allegiance to 

anse of security 






petuate the status quo. 

Although we are destined to be born, live, and die 
alone in such a bleak environment, we also have the poten- 



power as individuals is limited b 






tions and hostile parameters and although we are destined 
to have unhappy endings, we do have aontinual opportunities 
to create spontaneous, intense, and beautiful experiences. 









McCabe and Mrs. Miller can be thought of as Altaian's 

few loose ends. The characters are purely functional; the 
values are explicitly explained; the identifications unam- 



biguous. Although there is the 

directly explains them. The mui 
the movie is a gentle, quiet on; 

ful ballads are obtrusively heai 
or help the moods, they push an; 
Altman's following films, at le; 
avoid being so pointed and will 



r subtleties. 



that develops its own 
ce and distractingly beauti- 



Marlowe, Charley, Bill, and 
McCabe is playing a role. ' 

into the role. Because he mixes his public persona and 
his private feelings and needs, he is never fully convinc- 
ing in or understanding of the role. This leaves him Un- 

nnderstand the importance of the deal and acts improperly; 
he not only fails to make the deal, but also offends the 

sets in motion the events leading t 



While the other Altman characters define themselves so 
totally in terms of their roles that we never really know 






visual images . 4 



procession of 



After all, McCabe is a 
iked at simply as a series 



justification for 

of moving photographs. There is no reason, then, not to 
have those pictures be as beautiful as possible. 

McCabe and Mrs. Miller , then, is a comprehensive socic 

America, a beautiful and tender love story, and a stunning 
visual experience. It also is Altman's last explicit and 
thus traditional moviej those that are to follow will be 
much looser and more open-ended. But since all the movies 

can be thought of as Altman' 



distorted 



lan give the audience 

the audience to see the world through Cs 

elongated, twisted, blurred, and surreal 
come increasingly strong and vivid enouc 

lesce and become terrifying and dangerous. 

Carol's eyes, we in the audience are denied any substant 
s behind Carol's problems. The 

gious references, her relationship with her sister. The 

information that would make sense of them is withheld. 
This lack of information guarantees t 
ability to understand the r 
and our resulting inability to objectify hi 

study of madness is hindered. Without this more distant 

we are thrust into her experience. Rather than watch 



explanation o 



Carol's madness , 






Polanski achieves this emotional involvement by care- 
fully structuring the film. The first part of the movie 
moves slowly; Carol goes about her daily routines. There 
are, however, many hints of her impending breakdown. She 

fascinated by the noise of her sister's lovemaking and by 
any male intrusion into her life (Colin's kiss and Michael, 



3 her inability to con- 
part of the movie is shot objeo- 
lot understand why Carol is getting 
still are watching her 
removed position, 
change this with the mirror scene. 



more disoriented 

Polanski begins a 

startling, disorienting, and frightening to us as it 

but an ordinary fantasy that many of us have had. Th 

ing the same emotional response a 

of Carol's apartment down. The only sympathetic a‘ 
in the film, he seems genuinely attracted to and concerned 






the audience, barges 



distorts his £a< 
apartment, he ei 



jurisdiction. And since he is 



After she kills Colin and, later, the landlord, Carol's 



breakdown intensifies! the cracked walls crack even louder 

They also get softer and more aggressive! hands reach out 

gloomier, more shadow-filled. There are no objective shots 
and no relief! the audience is forced to see the world 



through Carol's eyes and, at least to some extent, is 
forced to undergo her experience. 

For all Repulsion 's subjectivity, however, it is an 
unambiguous movie. Because so much time is spent with 
Carol at the initial stages of her breakdown, the audience 
gets to know her environment and her situation. The more 
subjective part of the film can thus be identified and at 
least minimally analysed. Because we have seen the cracked 

part of the film, we know that the more startling cracks, 
che twisted walls are imaginary ramifications of the objec- 
tive world. Since we are able to make this judgment, we 
also can unambiguously identify the men in her bed and the 
hands in the walls as figments of her imagination. This 



understanding 



lack of ambiguity gives us at least some 
intellectual distance and thus undercuts our disorienta- 



In the film's last scene, the subjectivity is dropped 

holiday, find the two bodies and Carol, who is catatonic 
and under the bed. Michael picks Carol up and carries her 



original 
and objectifying the 



experience over, Polanski e. 



tk into our own worlds. 

framework. Operating without any framing devices. Images 
maintains its subjectivity throughout the entire film and 
thus demands a more active and more flexible audience. 

From beginning to end. Images thrusts us into a schiso- 
phrenic experience; not once does it compromise its struc- 
tural design of subjective point of view and audience dis- 



Schisophrenia , popularly thought of as the phenomenon 
of a split personality (a notion popularised by countless 
films and television programs) , is more correctly defined 
as a split from reality . 1 As Images begins, Kathryn, a 



children's book author, 



s already started ti 



cause she "miscarried" his child, f 
o rid herself of that relationship 1 
s Marcel, a promiscuous artist who 



plane that era: 






repulsed by their brief 
sexual encounter. The third man is her current husband, 

of the sexuality of the two others but does offer her the 
stability and security of a "good" marriage. 

Kathryn's chief problem we quickly discover, is that 
she cannot keep the people in her life straight. Xn the 
middle of a kiss or a sentence, Hugh will become Rene who 
will soon turn back into Hugh. When Hugh leaves the room 

he comes back inside, possibly because his finger is bleed- 
ing all over the carpet too. Kathryn is then forced to 
deal with an imaginary Marcel who makes passes at her even 
when the real Marcel is in the next room talking to his 

and special relationship with the twelve-year-o 
who looks mysteriously like Kathryn. Finally, t 



Kathryn' i 



Kathryn 



and who Kathryn often sees standing in 
ing and, perhaps, waiting. 

the presence and rapid interchanging of personalities are 
confusing and upsetting to Kathryn. Even more frightening 
are the ensuing events. Kathryn stops fighting Rene's and 
Marcel's advances and indulges in a particularly satisfying 
lovemaking session. She is, however, unable to tell which, 



Terrified, she confronts Rene. Realizing he must be 



be exorcized by a ritual act of murder. If, he te 



s advice apparently works, f 



trouble 



for the rest of the film. No one else notices the body 
although they do hear the gunshot and see the still camera 
of Hugh's that the blast has destroyed. 















and calmly 



imaginary Marcel to death. The next day, Susannah comes 
without her father; Kathryn has some nervous moments over 
whether she killed the right Marcel. But the real Marcel, 

alive. Relieved, she turns the car around and starts home. 
On the ride back, she sees her alter-ego begging her for a 
ride. Ignoring her, Kathryn speeds home, only to be un- 
nerved by the two bloody corpses and empty house. Deciding 
to join Hugh in London, she gets back into her car and is 
again stopped by her alter-ego, who begs for help and pro- 
fesses love for Kathryn. Suddenly Kathryn realizes that 



her ghosts laid to rest, she drives to her London apart- 
ment and finds an already steamy bathroom. She gets into 

ever, it is not Hugh, but her alter-ego, who is smugly 
laughing. Confused, Kathryn's mind is thrown back to the 



Kathryn is suffering, then, from schizophrenia because 

her imaginary one. The inability to differentiate forces 

of actual and illusory realities. Denied the benefits of 
a constant, objective reality, she is a disoriented kaliedo- 
scope of moods: bewildered, confident, frustrated, des- 

perate, sensual, frightened, rational, irrational. 



r experience, Altman has designed a 
film so harrowing and so disorienting that we are immedi- 
ately thrust into Kathryn's world. Unlike Carol in Repul - 
sion , we do not see Kathryn in her early, slower stages of 
her breakdown. The first time we see Hugh, he turns into 
Rene; fifteen minutes into the film, Kathryn and her alter- 
ego become inexplicably intertwined, without any previous 
information, we are expected to handle characters and plot 

Kathryn, we are confused and frustrated; denied even the 
slender emotional distance Polanski allowed, we have no 
more idea which character is who or what really happened 

ambiguous the film becomes. When Kathryn is driving to 

the car and stands on a hill to catch the first glimpse of 

car drive up to the house and sees herself get out of it, 

the house. Then there is a shift to the Kathryn inside 

still watching. This happens several more times - al- 
though Kathryn's relationship with her alter-ego becomes 
more ambivalent as her alter-ego becomes more aggressive, 
we can never really know which Kathryn was the one we met 
first. Any effort to untangle the two Kathryns leads to 



an insolvable, frustrating mate that further disorients 
the audience. This disorientation becomes a mirror of 
Kathryn's mental state; we feel with her rather than in- 

Other insolvable puzzles and intentional ambiguities 
abound. Regardless of how many times the scene with Hugh, 
Marcel, Kathryn, and Susannah talking after dinner is 

and who is sleeping is impossible. Also untraceable are 

fas it Hugh or Marcel? Like Kathryn her- 



even need, to know. Because we cannot, our own feelings 
tens! fled. 

Probably the film’s major ambiguity concerns the iden- 
tity of the body at the bottom of the cliff. Altman has 

first, the rational interpretation, is that Kathryn has 

her resentment over her contradictory need for the security 
promised by a traditional marriage all lead to her subcon- 

trioks her into killing Hugh. 



Justifications for this interpretation include the 
shot of Hugh's. train returning and someone - , presumably Hugh, 

Hugh was to ride home on had he returned early; and Kath- 
ryn's alter-ego sounding more like Hugh than Kathryn with 
all the "Jesus Christs" and "Goddamns." Also used as evi- 



swered the phone. Throughout the conversation, the phon 

sense and gives the film its twist and irony necessary £< 
clever reworking of Repulsion . 



.so, shortly after the train shot 

has "something very important to do," thus indicating a 
foreknowledge of her run-in with Hugh/her alter-ego on 



also imagined the meeting on the cliff. Also, when the 




Hugh 1 '? Since the two characters speak their lines inter- 
changeably, the scene may very well be an extension of 
Kathryn's imagination. Finally, when Kathryn enters her 
London apartment, the bathroom is filled with steam, if 
Hugh had been killed and since the alter-ego is a creature 






unlikely that anyone 



equally plausible explanations. 



that the real Hugh was killed and that no one really was 

chilling, if familiar, psychological suspense thriller. 

If he were not really killed, the terror remains the same 
but focuses on the horror of Kathryn's madness. Images 
then becomes more like a nightmare, equally upsetting but 






interpreta- 



tion is futile because both are included in the film's de- 
sign. Unlike Repulsion , which grounds itself to objective 
reality, Images cultivates its subjectivity and ambiguities. 
If one and not both of the interpretations is true, we will 



and confident. If, however, we are not sure, we will leave 
the film confused, disoriented, frustrated. Because Images 
never endorses or returns to objective reality and because 

sistent to its metaphor of schizophrenia, a split from 



e maintaining of ambiguities and insolvable puzzles 
es is consistent with the schizophrenic metaphor in 

d because Kathryn's moods are so changeable, she 
film have no one constant emotion. Similarly, we 
er know if Hugh was or was not killed; Altman is 
US to have an ambivalent emotional response. 












found; the puzzle is of Green Cove, Kathryn's country home, 
and has a unicorn standing by it. Rather than with the 



has been writing. 



ending of the children's book Kathryn 
This time, however, the words are read 
t by young Susannah. By ending with 



this transformation, Altman underscores t 
their relationship to the film. 

From the beginning, Kathryn and Susannah react to each 
other intensely, instinctively, and non-verbally. Prima- 
rily because we do not enter into the relationship, it does 
not seem intellectually or rationally motivated. For ex- 
ample, the first time Kathryn sees Susannah, the girl is 
hiding in the cupboard, Kathryn assumes she is just another 
ghost and shuts the door on her. When Susannah is finally 

and sticks out her tongue at Kathryn, who surprisingly 
sticks her tongue out too. Although this may not seem 
proper behavior to us, Susannah understands and accepts 
Kathryn's action. Next, Kathryn asks how old Susannah is 
and learns that she is twelve and a half. Susannah then 
asks how old Kathryn is; "Thirteen and a quarter," is 
Kathryn's answer. Although we may be surprised by the in- 

audin understands instinctively. Altman allows the two 
characters to indulge in almost a private joke and sets 
the tone for their ensuing relationship. Throughout the 

the nature of the friendship and their underlying motiva- 






physical similarities are startling enough for Marcel to 
take special notice of them. Kathryn's concern for Susan- 
nah' s feeling and welfare quickly replace her initial sur- 
prise and ease Susannah's initial hostility; when Susannah 
asks her to be her best friend, Kathryn is delighted. Be- 
cause of their friendship, Susannah stops caring about a 



visit from her former best friend, a fifteen year old city 



girl. Susannah wants to know if Kathryn looked like her 



Kathryn did as a child, Kathryn answers that "I used to go 
for walks, tell myself stories, play in the woods." Then 
Kathryn asks Susannah what she would do if Kathryn had to 
go away. Susannah calmly answers, "I'd tell myself stories, 
play in the woods. I'd make up a friend." 

We see them drifting closer and closer to each other, 
merging their individual identities. Our suspicions and 
their verbal exchanges are, however, inadequate preparation 
for the final shot of the two of them together. Kathryn 




chilling communion. 



superimposed over the puzzle and learn that the name of t 
book is In Search of Unicorns ■ The unicorn, a mythical 
beast, can be fed, as the legend goes, only by a virgin. 
Kathryn not only is no virgin, but is a repository of un- 




places the camera and looks through the window at exactly 
the same angle. The constantly searching camera finally 
rests on the object of its search, the unicorn. The rest 
is, however, deceptively temporary; soon Susannah will grow 
up to be just like Kathryn, will lose her ability to feed 
the unicorn, and will reenact the story of spiritual pos- 



snd upon Susannah, she is 
'er the transmission of 
identities. Whenever Susannah makes a verbal or an emo- 
tional progression into the merging of their identities. 



Because Kathryn knov 
terror that eventually wi 



, unhappiness, and w 



Kathryn 



t worried a: 



besides Kathryn, and that she will beh* 
used to, Kathryn does not look pleased, 
frustrated. However troubled Kathryn is, however, she 
nothing to stop Susannah's increasing involvement; it i 
almost as if Kathryn is a powerless bystander watching 

The idea of possession is primal and familiar. Al- 
though the idea is not intellectually frightening because 

rational, non-verbal level. Similarly, we can experience 
the bizarre side to Kathryn and Susannah's relationship 
without knowing why intellectually. In review after re- 
view, Altman was criticized for not sufficiently, or more 
properly, intellectually and rationally developing their 
relationship. This criticism, like the complaint that 

e cannot understand the relationship, but can 
d feeling, not understanding, is what Images 



from a failure t 



A classic symptom of schizophrenia 






dinary stimuli,' perceives them differently than a non- 
schizophrenic does, and thus behaves differently than a 
non-schizophrenic. Because Kathryn perceives the world 
differently, she can look at a room and conjure up ghosts 
that seem real or can listen to Hugh and suddenly turn him 
into Bene, Marcel, or her alter-ego. Misinterpreting her 
environment, she turns the mundane into a grotesque private 



e expected t' 



a difficult i 






on rationality t 



Lth her. Because her world is not based 
it instead relies so heavily on her moods, 

: through the film, we logically try to 
>ut of Kathryn's actions and look for 






on-schizophrenic value systems, 1 



are bound to be frustrated. Aft 
unable to translate, much less e 
components of Kathryn's world, 
frustration and the futility of 
reversal Altman plays on us; he 



plain, the irrational 
Kathryn ’ s . Although s 



stimuli, misinterpreting the context, and then acting ac- 
cording to the resulting false perceptions. Although we 
may be irritated, then, we must admit that Altman has moved 
us one step closer to Kathryn's schizophrenic experience. 
Images embodies another symptom of schizophrenia, loos 

relentless pacing that keeps us on the edges of our seats. 

an increasingly quick rhythm. To help the faster pace, 
Polanski relies almost entirely on the straight cut, the 
fastest editing device. Images , however, goes against 
this pattern, using non- functional transitions like super- 

ful, they are distracting because they slow down the film 
and draw attention to themselves, not to Kathryn and to 
the events. Also, the camera wanders over the rural land- 
scapes for no other reason than the countryside' s beauty, 
thus distracting from the functional rhythm normally as- 
sociated with the genre. This dreamy, non-direct style 
breaks the continuity and pacing necessary to generate 
sustained suspense. 

Altman undoubtedly knows this. He also knows that 
the faster moving, more linear style that would achieve a 

tivity. By employing a loose style, he is using the camera 






successfully intertwines Image * s theme and style. 

The final symptom of schizophrenia that Altman in- 
corporates into the design of the film is the loss of ego 
A non-schizophrenic has no trouble distinguishing between 
himself and other people and objects; he knows where his 









phrenic, on the other hand, cannc 
perception becomes so disoriented that she sees her alter- 
ing to integrate into her ego. Kathryn is also confused 

ego and her other male fantasies. Because she cannot tell 
who is real and who is not, we cannot either. As we wonder 



which one is real, we experience a similar, if less imme- 



diate, loss of ego boundaries and az 
one more aspect of schizophrenia. £ 
however, the loss of ego boundaries 

Kathryn's ability to detatch ar 






a artistic experience, 
watch herself is not 



much different from the detatched way we watch movies; 
there is always a separation or distance between film and 
audience. This distance inhibits a complete integration 
with the film and, as a result, inhibits the ability to 
feel and experience the film. Since there is this distance 
and lack of total involvement, there is a shift from feel- 






intellectual concept 



requiring some differentiation between the scr 
audience. 

Placed in this context, Altman's desire t 
movie like a painting that is looked at 

schizophrenia as a metaphor for the artistic experience 

disoriented and separated from our objective reality, the: 
we can be shaken loose from our rational vantage points, 
t distance between us and the 



motivates the film's design. Had Altman wanted us to know 
what really happened or why Kathryn was sexually frustrated 
and schisophrenic, he would have told us. Instead, he has 
built a series of insolvable pussies and ambiguities that 

an emotional response. 

Altman purposely confuses the conventional relation- 
ship between film and audience even further by intertwining 

was actually published; its author, a woman named Susannah 
York, who is also the actress who plays Kathryn. In ad- 
dition, Kathryn's young friend, called Susannah in the movie. 



Auberjonis plays Hugh; 



is played by Kathryn Harrison. Rene 
Hugh Millais plays Marcel; Marcel Bozzuffi plays Rene. 

Roles, reality, and illusion are thus blurred and eventually 
indistinguishable; a rational response to the movie is made 
even more unlikely. 



man gives us a series of images that u 
.ken as their own reality. He uses 
, lenses, windows, and transparent wind 




they are transitory devices b 
to shift the locale 01 
not used to establish a pattern or hint that the film or 
Kathryn is moving from "reality" to "fantasy." Instead, 
they become beautiful objects that reflect and create 
images for their own sake and their own justification. 



lack of a clear pattern and satisfying purpose frustrate 
and disappoint us. But when we accept the images on their 
own terms, forgetting to bend them to our own preconceived 



values and viewing habits, we are ready to enter the ar- 
characters in a traditional sense; yes, they may only be 



images generated from Kathryn's imagination; yes, they can 
be both real and imaginary. Freed from the false rational 
need to mean something and be explainable, Altman is 






I'm not even going to show you anything? I'm going to let 
you see something. And if you don't help me, my picture 




e audience. Surrender, it begs us, to the 
rid and revel in the beautiful and horrify- 



Just as McCabe is Altman's clearest explanation of 

statement about the film experience. Movies should not 
have to tie up loose ends or be simple reflections of the 
outside world? unless they want to, movies should not have 

bored by it. But those willing to help, willing to suspend 
demands for rationality and reality in place of the more 
individual standards set by the movie itself, may be re- 



e detective f 



die detective genre and carries them to their 

From the beginning, movie private eyes have dealt with 
the seamier aspects of life, regardless of the social class 

tive has been isolated from the rest of society, including 
the police and the legal authorities. The world may be 

mains true to his personal, often old-fashioned standard 
of morality. Because he is a moral force in a non-moral 

five, forty hour a week job. This helps explain the typi- 
smart alecky, solitary outsider. 



ing, rough talking, 



Although rarely wealthy. 



daily those of. high breeding, who do not 

The prototype private detective is unquestionably 
Humphrey Bogart; the definitive movie, probably The Mal- 
tese Falcon ; the key scene, the one where Sam Spade (Bo- 
gart) refuses to listen to Bridget's plea for love and 
mercy and turns her in to the police. Yes, he admits, si 
is the only woman for him; yes, he does love her - but si 



against him whenever she needs to. His combination of 
cynical awareness and moral considerations leaves him no 

her. Although he is composed and determined when he makes 



If The Maltese Falcon is the most popular detective 
movie, the most beloved cult private eye film may be The 
Big Sleep . Bogart moves easily from Hammett's Sam Spade 
to Chandler's Phillip Marlowe. Although he plays basically 
the same role in both, the two films are totally different. 

Where The Maltese Falcon is tight and fast. The Big 


















Complicated but reasonably coherent, it is important here 









course, Marlowe does 
n all night grocery 
taste alike anyway. 



Lennox' s request to 

it subtly establishes 
t begins the pattern of 



of struck matches and by a bed with 
Marlowe is pried out of his bed by h. 

only Curry Brand Cat Food, which, of 
not have. After a futile search at • 
store for the obscure brand (they all 
the stock boy tells him) , Marlowe re' 
scratched Terry Lennox. 

ingless; the film really begins with 

several important motifs. 

Marlowe being inconvenienced and used by others; the cat 

keep the cat. Finally, Altman sets up the first parallel 
between Marlowe and Lennox. Despite Marlowe's apparent 
loyalty and generosity, which later seems to distinguish 
him from Lennox, both have been scratched on the face; 
Marlowe by his cat, Lennox by his wife. 

tion, but also demonstrates the importance Marlowe places 
on friendship. In the middle of the night, Lennox asks 
Marlowe to drive him to Tiajuana. Although Marlowe is 



friendship with Lennox obligates him 



when Marlowe re- 
abuses of authority < 



lowe's refusal to pri 

ineffective search for some 
suit of Marlowe's distaste 



id brutality that their role can en- 
y do not understand or believe Mar- 
into Lennox's situation just because 
So the police bully Marlowe in an 

ay they ask questions* 
a defend himself, partly 



because of Marlowe's ignorance, and partly because of his 
professional ethics and reputation, Marlowe refuses to an- 

loyalty and submission, he breaks into an A1 Jolson routine 
and gets thrown into jail. 

Although Marlowe's use of fingerprinting ink for black- 

He distrusts cheap force and corrupt authorities and re- 
fuses to be intimidated by them. Regardless of his own 



laugh and not take himself seriously. Because hi 

wins our sympathy and emotional identification, just like 

Marlowe not only demonstrates a fidelity to many of 
his role's traditional values, but also maintains its tra- 
ditionally high standard of professionalism. When he ac- 
cepts the assignment of locating Eileen Wade's missing 
husband, Roger, he quickly finds him even though he has 
only one obscure clue. Roger Wade, it turns out, is a pa- 
tient-prisoner at Dr. Verringer's private sanitarium? after 
Marlowe finds Roger, he then must rescue him. which Mar- 

living man. Although Wade is more famous, more imposing, 
more financially successful, and more complicated than Mar- 

coming Wade's servant. Wade does extract Marlowe's promise 
to return to the writer's home, but he fails to convert 

lowe never surrenders his integrity and functions humanely, 
responsibly, and as his own man. 

Prom Wade, Marlowe moves to another set of characters, 

a very rich and powerful gangster, threatens Marlowe and 
gets the same bravado that the police got. Although 



the police, Marlowe still refuses to be intimidated. He 
must accept some physical pain here but uses his wit to 
beat the gangster at his own game. Marlowe's eluding of 
Harry, his inept tail, his own effortless success at follow- 
ing Augustine, and his refusal to cower further emphasize 
Marlowe's self-confidence and agility. 

Altman gives us the traditional complications of the pri- 
vate eye film. First, Marlowe, who has never accepted the 
labeling of Lennox's death as a suicide, gets a $5,000 bill 
from Lennox. He learns that Lennox was Augustine's delivery 
boy; he catches Hileen Wade lying about her relationship 

tionship with Lennox's wife; he finds out that the Wades 
and Augustine are involved in a dispute about money; he 
witnesses the mysterious return of Augustine's money and 
the horrifying suicide of Roger; he finds that Hileen has 
disappeared. Each complication intertwines Lennox's fate 

for Lennox's reputation and his substantial commitment of 
time and emotions continue to draw him deeper into the 
mystery. Though everyone else is satisfied, Marlowe takes 
his obligation to his friend and to the truth more seriously. 



With Lennox's 55,000, Marlowe b 
Lennox, who is Eileen Wade's lo 



ck to Mexico and to Lennox 
the necessary information 
, killed his wife. Roger 



his drunken rages; Eileen and Lennox use this belief to 
drive Roger to suicide. With the spouses out of the pic- 

anonymity in Mexico. Armed with this information, Marlowe 

In their meeting, Lennox is unable to understand Mar- 
lowe's anger. Lennox was in trouble, knew Marlowe was 



there, planned to pay him well for the inconvenience, and 
so had used him. "After all," he asks, "what are friends 







actions by telling Marlowe t 
nstream of contemporary ethic 



something you've never learned. I guess you never will 



Marlowe's answer and reaction is surprising. "Just a 
born loser, that's me. I even lost my cat. (Produces a 
gun) Terry, there's such a thing as being too damned smart. 
(Shoots and kills Terry)' 1 



Marlowe kills Lennox, then, but not because Lennox 
has brutally killed his wife. Instead, the real reason 
he has to die is because he abused Marlowe's friendship 
and violated Marlowe's code of conduct. Marlowe's murder 



Marty Augustine. "I 



e murdered his 






that important; his standard of conduct, however, is. When 
Lennox violates this code, Marlowe is as personally offended 









gustine would - or than Lennox did. Marlowe has placed 

feels totally justified in punishing the offender. That 
the punishment is motivated by revenge and involves muder 



capital punishment, 
penalty, who would? 









would effectively and impartially 
if morality and justice are to be 



upheld, Marlowe himself must be the avenger, the hand of 
justice. Thus,. Marlowe, a decent roan, seems to act out of 

moral correctness of his stance that he calmly executes a 
once good friend. And after administering the punishment, 
he feels so cleansed that he dances down the street. On- 



like Sam Spade and his sleepless nights, Marlowe will sleep 
soundly, untroubled by any twinge of conscience. By making 
Marlowe a vigilante capable of murder and by thus identify- 
ing him with all the other characters, including Lennox and 
Augustine, Altman has shown that the private eye is really 
no different than any of the others and that the moral su- 
periority, integrity, and heroism of the private eye is 
just another myth. 

The characterization of Marlowe as a self-styled agent 



conventional private eye mov. 
device that gives The long Gi 



s radical departure from 
but also the structural 
bye its coherence. Like 



the other Altman films, The Long Good-bye appears to be 
loose and non-linear a la The Big Sleep . Characters wander 
in and out of the film with little apparent reason; the 
episodic pace of the film continues oblivious to the more 
central concerns of the plot. Thus, such loosely related 



characters like the cat, the yoga ladies, and Dr. Verringer 
find their way into the film, adding depth and atmosphere 
even though they do not further the story line. Upon 



are all directly related. No matter how subtle the connec- 
tion, each character and each episode reiterate the film's 
major concern, the unrelenting pursuit of one's own desires, 

this. Even if it were saying nothing about the rest of 

cause it is very funny and arresting. No one sitting in 
the audience would be confused or thrown off by the scene, 
even if the more subtle nuances were missed. Although the 
movie could have begun with Lennox barging into Marlowe's 
apartment, the cat scene works cinematically. In fact, 
however, it also immediately defines Marlowe's relationship 

Marlowe for their own purposes, regardless of the incon- 
with his cat or with his other characters. 

that seem unrelated to the rest of the film. They play no 
part in the plot; as Marlowe says, "They aren't even there." 
Concerned only with their own pleasures, they do not hesi- 

unf airly used by Altman; there are no cheap or prurient 



Although they 



are pursuing 

their own desires more obviously than any other character, 
they are not criticized for wasting their lives nor are 

Instead, they are used because they are visually interest- 

i the male characters, and be- 



cause they further the film's concern with the pursuit of 
personal pleasure. 

Dr. Verringer, the quack who is treating Roger Wade, 
also has little to do with the film's story line, especially 

mosphere to Marlowe's story while remaining an independent 
cinematic character. 



While Verringer' s hospital is 
little doctor wanders into Wade's 



obviously comic. 



(curious how this sum keeps popping up) , 






Augustine's Coke bottle scene, so we empathize with the 
stunned Wade, who obediently writes the check. Verringer 
demonstrates the way of the world; like Marlowe, Lennox, 
Augustine, and Eileen, he feels he has been abused and feels 
justified in behaving insensitively, forcefully, and self- 
fishly so that he can regain what he feels is his. 



Verringer's behavior 



given the information necessary to understand it, Verringer 
is a typical Altman peripheral character. Because of a 
lack of background information, we are forced to respond 
to the character instinctively, emotionally, but not in- 
tellectually. Because most movies are artifically closed 

are not used to this less rational style 



out on a "No Trespassing” sign, movies do not always suc- 
ceed in getting inside and revealing a character. The 






the guests at the party are. And Verringer leaves as 
quickly as he came, answering no questions, adding emotion 

response. 

Although Wade is slightly different because he is 
totally unsuccessful in getting what he wants, he does try 
to inflict his problems and needs onto everyone else. 
Afraid that he can no longer love and write, he tries to 
bully his wife and intimidate Marlowe into being his ser- 
vant. When neither of these efforts works, he surrounds 
himself with his eager army of parasitic freeloaders. 



afraid. When he is publicly assaulted and humiliated by 
Verringer, Wade cringes and cries. He does not have the 
self-assurance and toughness of Verringer or Eileen; he 






e Long Good-bye 1 s harsh, egocentric 



to make the plot line intelligible but not ei 

drinker who is subject to amnesiac blackouts 

that he is afraid he has killed Lennox's wif< 

sound and fury. We do not know enough about 
to really understand the private Roger Wade, 
enigmatic and distant. Bis role in the film 

Wade intrigues, fascinates, and involves us c 



5 respectable hi 









Wade, but not as challenging. 









casual and extreme brutality. 

speech labeling the theft of his money as the real crime 
are the two most explicit explanations of The Long Good- 
bye 's world, especially since the acts are juxtaposed 

less personality. Had his capacity for cruelty and vio- 
lence remained undeveloped, his obsession with physical 
fitness and his clumsy, inefficient gangsters would remain 

and the others in the film only appear harmless and humor- 



are capable of any cohesive action to retrieve the object 
and are brutally able to punish the offender. 

Like Augustine, Lennox is a familiar and superficial 



character. More than any other, he exists to give the 
plot direction; his murder of his wife, his escape, and 
his fake suicide motivate the entire movie. Marlowe's ef- 
forts to say good-bye to him, to clear, explain and finally 
get even with him provide the framework for the film. And 

theme, when asked to justify his unnecessarily brutal 
beating of his wife, he tells Marlowe he had no choice. 

She threatened to turn him in to the police, scratched him. 



venienced him and interfered with his pursuit of the good 



life. Because she caused him trouble, she deserved to be 
eliminated from Lennox's point of view. When he Killed her 
then, Lennox had no guilt feelings or pangs of regret. 



Perhaps the most inscrutable character of all is 
Eileen Wade. She is beautiful, cunning, and ambiguous. A 
quick but not totally convincing liar, she claims to love 
Roger and be terrified of his violent and erratic behavior. 
At the same time, she seems malevolently manipulative, cold 
and unforgivingly judgmental. She is suggestively teasing 

constantly using her sexuality as a tool to get information 

she is able to forgive his brutal beating and killing of 
his wife and is able to help push Roger into suicide. 
Eileen, like the others, is interested in getting what she 
wants. In her case, it is a life with Lennox. To realise 
her ambition, she is pragmatic, ruthless, and aware. To 
achieve her happiness, she is willing to use Marlowe and to 

All the characters, then, act on the assumption that 



fillment, regardless of the cost to others. On a first 
viewing of the film, the tendency is to separate Marlowe 
from the rest; Marlowe seems more like a refugee from a 






s structurally reflected in its 
most brutal and striking scene. Augustine's mistress, 
JoAnne, walks in on his effort to scare Marlowe and asks 

in Marlowe's apartment! it is almost empty, warm, and flat. 
The state of the Coke triggers an Augustine monologue on 
the general state of Marlowe's apartment and on JoAnne 's 
beauty. As Augustine is talking, he quickly and unexpect- 
edly smashes the bottle into her face. As we watch in slow 
motion, the bottle breaks into her skin and flies off her 
face. Like Marlowe, we are totally unprepared for this 
violent intrusion; even though we have no personal invest- 
ment in JoAnne, we are sickened by the senseless and horri- 

acted with the same mentality as Augustine. First, he has 
disarmed us by showing the ridiculous, seemingly harmless 
antics of the zany hoods. Then, without warning, Altman 
thrusts a minor character forward and mutilates her in 
slow motion. The action happens so quickly and is so skill- 
fully suspended by the use of the slow motion that the 
moment becomes hypnotizing and compelling; we cannot look 
away. So we sit there, cleverly manipulated and coldly 



The camera work also integrates style a 



film fraught 



with psychological in- 
sights. Similarly, it is not a movie that is interested 
in absolute value judgments; people are out for themselves 




camera. As if to avoid any definitive or judgmental com- 
ment and to keep the movie outside the characters, the 
camera never settles on one object or perspective. In ad- 



dition to the constant motion, the film is shot in pastels. 



definitive statement. 

Like Altman's other non-linear films. The Long G 

pastels and the moving camera help for they tend to b 

film's continuity is the thematic similarity of all t 
characters and their overwhelming concern for their r 
spective desires. Even more significant, however, is 









can be both invisible and highly visible. "Loved all your 
movies," Marlowe casually remarks. 



These allusions do more than draw attention to Altman's 
previous efforts, favorites, and influences. Instead, by 
constantly drawing attention to the movies as an art form, 
he is telling us that we are watching a movie. Thus, he 



life or literature, but its own art form. For the firs 
time, Altman lets his allusions emerge full screen. Th 
are no longer left in the corner of the frame as a flap 
movie poster, nor are they thinly disguised. Now the a 

lusions naturally help create the boundaries 



















target whose faults are widely known and accepted; the 
swipe at it here is cliched and jaded enough to be in keep- 






movies. Finally, . 












CHAPTER 8 
THIEVES LIKE OS 
























contrasted to the blandness 
evilness of Malcolm and the 
"somebodies," heroes of the 



of Eugene and Vilma and the 
law, Bonnie and Clyde became 



Thieves Like Us does not share this romantic view of 
crime. The gangsters here never seem to have as much fun 
robbing banks as the Barrow gang did, nor do they find the 
same fame and fulfillment. Instead, Thieves paints a 
darker, less glamorous picture. Rather than depict the re- 
lentless pursuit of the authorities. Thieves concentrates 

gang's destruction. Bowie, Chicamaw, and T-Dub are not 
destroyed because they are romantic outlaws that threaten 







midgets?") and size 46 overalls {"Do you think we're 
giants?") for their getaway outfits. Even Jazzbo tells a 
joke about a little boy who gives his turtles blisters by 
rubbing their feet on a table. Even more than the jokes, 
however, Jazzbo' s character provides much of the scene's 
humor. Id.ke many other peripheral Altman characters, 
Jazzbo's obesity makes him instantly identifiable, as does 
his whining fear of personal harm. As the three fugitives 



soundtrack captures his bizarre and terrified a. 
he will follow Chicamaw' s instructions. Although his name 
is briefly mentioned once more, we never see Jazzbo again. 
Still, like Verringer, the preacher, and the other periph- 
eral Altman characters, Jazzbo's unusual physical appear- 
ance and personality develop his character effectively and 

Other Altman-esque details abound. The overlapping 
soundtrack, even more inaudible than usual, offers a direct 
commentary on the film's action. T-Dub reveals his ama- 

beries, but by exaggerating the number of them. He begins 
by saying, "This will be my twenty-eighth bank." The next 
bank job, however, will be his "thirtieth”! the following 
one, his "thirty-third." T-Dub' s tendency to exaggerate 
is further compounded by his counting the hold-up game at 
Mattie's as a real bank job. More importantly, the first 



robberies 







he is an "octopus." 

Equally obvious is the 



"Romeo and Juliet" broadcast. 






by falling madly in love." Although Altman may have been 
trying to foreshadow the disintegration of Bowie and 
Keechie's relationship by contrasting them with the most 

t idealized love affair in history, the verbal 
ems cynical and distracting. Later that 
evening, when Bowie and Keechie make love twice more, Alt- 
man repeats the line from Shakespeare, even zooming in to 
the radio. The device does not only d 



robs the scene of its dignity, 
humanize his characters and let 









Altman spends a great deal of time developing Bowie 
and Keechie; their unusual physical appearances (so dif- 
ferent from the Hollywood glamour of Barren Beatty's Clyde 
and Faye Dunaway's Bonnie), their innocence, honesty, and 
vulnerability make us respond to them as people, not char- 

glamorises gangsters, we see Bowie and Keechie as people, 
not as the gangster or social problem and his gun moll. 
Unlike Clyde, who totally defines himself through his oc- 
cupational role of outlaw, Bowie's and Keechie 's love has 
nothing to do with his being a thief. Similarly, Keechie* s 
objections to Chicamaw and T-Dub have little to do with the 
morality of living outside the law. Instead, she seems 
jealous of the times and loyalties the men share. Since 
this human dimension of the characters is crucial to the 






cheapens the scene. 



first time since McCabe , Altman lets 
highly visible style separate himself 
As the result, he degrades them, 
and, at least momentarily, undermines 




reading 



react. The camera watches Bowie and then Keechie as she 



approaches the house: from the beginning of the scene, 

just before Keechie, who carries the newspaper. As the 
three read about their escape, the camera moves in slowly 

article. When it lists the three's identities, Bowie 



leaves the room; the camera follows and shows him staring 

Chicamaw; we are more interested in Bowie's longing for 
Keechie. When T-Dub reads the longer part of the article 



authorities' reactions, tl 



the extra coverage devoted to 
back to a description of the 




on T-Dub and Chicamaw. Afterwards, Chicamaw and T-Dub 
elaborate on their dissatisfaction with the article's treat- 
ment of them; as each speaks, he is isolated in the frame 



ates Altman's functional and 


















Fortunately, Altman subdues both his camerawork and 












133 






Bowie ana Keechie come to her Pickin Grapes Hotel, the 
radio calls haw "the heart of gold. " Ironically, Bowie 
and Keechie turn the radio off. The door falling on Dee 




in a "haunted” house. In addition. Thieves is shot through 
a filter that effectively captures the feel of the past and 
the Depression without resorting to the overused and senti- 
mental soft-focus look. The costumes, sets, and objects 
used in the film add to its authentic appearance; the 
faded Coca-Cola signs, thirties' radios, and old southern 



places the 



Altman drops the gangster programs and re- 
vith political broadcasts; in the third bank 
example, we hear Roosevelt's inauguration and 
station, a speech by Father Coughlin is broad- 



More interesting than these details are the minor 



characters of Thieves ; each one is impressed on our memo- 
ries. Lula, T-Dub’s young wife, dedicates herself to 






cosmetology; ; 



e continually redoes N< 



Bowie her marriage certificate, Bowie humorously mistakes 
it for her beauty school diploma. Although superficial 
and only shabbily sexy, she radiates warmth; beneath the 
stereotype of the gun moll lies a likeable and decent per- 
son. Less likeable but equally effective is the jail 
warden. Totally self-centered, he gluttonously eats an 



escape. "This is gonna cost me plenty, boys, this is gonna 



A reflection of the world of ; 



also impresses u 
does nothing without some sort of renumeration, he appears 
menacing but is more sound than fury, easily handled even 

foreshadows Chicamaw's mental deterioration; when Chicamaw 
brings the wounded Bowie back to Dee's, Dee explodes that 
he has never enjoyed the benefits of fame and fortune. An 
uncharacteristic outburst fo 
Dee out of his stereotype and gives h 



ity. Even more memorable are Mattie's two children, Noel 
Joy and Bubba. Noel Joy is a strange, passive girl, chained 
to Mattie's rules of training that will supposedly mold her 









children. Dee Mobley, and the warden are, they remain minor 



»tly repeats. 






The alliance, however, soon shifts, when Mattie goes 
to the railroad station and leaves the three alone, T-Dub 
and Bowie dream of a more normal life. Although not ashamed 
of their actions, they realize the risks they run. "1 made 
my mistake when I was a kid," T-Dub decides, "I should have 
been a doctor or a lawyer or run for office and robbed 
people with my brains instead of a gun." He dreams of a 



of a farm, but of pitching pro ball. He too has no illu- 
sions about the romance of robbing banks. Chicamaw inter- 

window and turning them back to the business of robbing 
banks. Just as Clyde in Bonnie and Clyde cannot envision 
any other occupation than bank robbery, Chicamaw can think 
only of drinking, loving, and robbing banks. Because of 
this inability, Chicamaw cannot share T-Dub and Bowie's 
dreams of a different future. 

This difference is accentuated by Chicamaw' s problem 
drinking, his violent personality, his increasing resent- 
ment of Bowie, and his total dedication to his role of a 

and Lula play bank robbery reveals Chicamaw 's dependence 
on his role and his potential for violence. Hoel Joy plays 
at being a teller and Bubba makes a very funny porter, but 
T-Dub plays only so he can frisk Lula. Lula wants no part 



that she had better take it seriously. He scares her into 
submission, showing how dangerous he can be. His behavior 
also demonstrates how deeply engrained his role is; unlike 
the others, he cannot play-act or have fun with the game. 
Instead, he takes his role so seriously that it has already 



begun to destroy him. 

Despite the friction and differences between the three 
men, they do have a relationship that demands Bowie's 
loyalty. Because he feels an obligation to his partners, 
he returns to Yazoo City over Keechie's objections. After 
T-Dub dies, Bowie privately grieves, movingly saying good- 
bye to T-Dub as he stokes the fire. And he calls Chicamaw 
his only friend and hopes to get to Mexico with him. 

Although the partnership elicits a loyalty and gives 
the three the means to live, it fails to satisfy their per- 
sonal needs. T-Dub wins Lula, who loves the luxuries money 




When Bowie smoothly frees him from prison, Chicamaw ex- 
plodes. Bowie. makes him "look like thirty cents. It just 



By the end of the movie, then, their relationship has 
become destructive and debilitating. T-Dub is dead, pos- 
sibly because his love for Lula made him put his real name 
on the marriage license; Bowie's attempt to save Chicamaw 
provides the excuse and rationale for his death; and Chica- 
maw' s rationality has been destroyed by his jealousy. As 
in all Altman relationships, then, what seemed beneficial 
and positive turns out to be destructive and dangerous. 

This depiction of the disintegration of the gang in 
Thieves makes it a much less romantic movie than Bonnie 
and Clyde . Throughout Thieves . T-Dub and Bowie have shown 
that they are not ashamed of their work; Bowie's only re- 
gret was getting 519,000 instead of 5100,000. Keechie does 
not object because Bowie is a thief, but because he must 
divide his attention between her and the boys. Although 
devoted to form, Mattie does not mind when T-Dub reads a 
newspaper account of their robbery at the dinner table. 

Even there, they treat their occupation matter-of-factly; 



sobering, but not a moralistic, effect on them. And, un- 
like Bonnie and Clyde , the law does not play a very visible 
role in the film; the gang does not seem to be chased at 
all. Rather than focus on the spectacular and dramatic. 



the more banal, ordinary 



neither condemns 






for being gangsters living outside the law. As bank rob- 
bers, they steal and kill, but only Chicamaw seems to enjoy 
the violence. (T-Dub tells Bowie that the money is in- 



selves and thus turn a personal profit; "It's like a piece 
of cake," he says.) Although they take more risks and are 
more visible, then, they are no different from lawyers, 
doctors, politicians, gasoline attendants. Unlike Bonnie 
and Clyde, who become mythic heroes destroyed by the forces 
of society, T-Dub, Chicamaw, and Bowie remain "thieves like 
us," ordinary people who are defined and destroyed by de- 
sires, pressures, and conflicts common to all human rela- 
tionships and occupations. 

Mattie, Bowie's agent of betrayal, specifically re- 
flects the film's unsentimental approach to gangsters. 

When T-Dub, Chicamaw, and Bowie celebrate their first bank 
robbery and plan for their future, Mattie refuses to join 
in the euphoria: "It'll take more than money to get Bud 



ness, she accepts T-Dub's $12,000 motel. When Bowie begs 
to stay there, she simply tells him that T-Dub is dead and 

especially after T-Dub financed the motel and called her 
"real people." Mattie, however is pragmatic: with T-Dub 
only a memory, continued association with his gang could 






eventually wins 







































their plight 



of support, he has an obligation to his friends. His con- 
tinued identification with the gang is hinted at by his 
use of Chicamaw's "Keechie Keechie Koo" after they sleep 
together. Keechie, who is ignorant of the origins and 
sexual implications of the remark, answers with her own re 
frain, "Bowie Bowie Boo." Rather than the private bed tal 
that brings the two closer together, this verbal exchange 
foreshadows the inevitable friction that will separate 



When Bowie goes to Yazoo City, Keechie feels betrayed, 
instead of trying to understand and help Bowie, she acts 
selfishly and shrewishly. She accuses him of lying to her, 
using her, and choosing his friends over her. The differ- 
ence between the easily satisfied and easy going Keechie 
of the film's first part and the new Keechie is emphasized 



by a startling 

has become twisted and ugly. As : 
Keechie runs to Bowie. Since she 
Bowie, she convinces herself that 



:he distorted reflection < 






: realizing t 
ias nothing w 









throws herself onto him. 

This sequence illustrates the relative immaturity of 
both Keechie and Bowie. Although they are forced to deal 
with the adult world and although they are no 






immediately. 


















less emotional state, soon to be coupled with the demands 
of parenthood, makes Keechie's situation unpleasant and 






CALIFORNIA S 



By 












repressed, and rational. Unlike Charley, who trusts and 
acts on his instincts. Bill needs facts and justification 
before he can act. after a race that ends in a photo- 
finish, for example, Charley dances to the ticket window 
before the winner is announced; he just knows he has won. 
Bill cannot understand how Charley knows and looks worried 
and apprehensive. Only after he sees that they officially 
have won does he celebrate. Not surprisingly. Bill is 
fascinated by Charley, who seems to be the ideal person to 



the film's major plot line, but also determine the film's 
structure. The first part of the movie is shot from 
Charley's point of view and is consistent with his person- 
ality; it is fast paced, carefree, and constantly alert to 
the humorous absurdities inherent in the film's events. 

humor, there is an underlying desperation and ugliness. 

of view; Charley's humor is present but seems empty and 
false when framed by Bill's more serious needs. 

Because Charley focuses on the humorous possibilities 
of every incident, the first part of California Split ig- 
nores the latent ugliness of its characters and settings 

poker palace, for example, is played for 
players are grotesque or nondescript in a 






thinks she is an expert gambler is 
sented as a peripheral, eccentric, 
and refreshing personality, we dc 



the bulldog face who 
not make fun of her; 



e thug Charley 



fights and is later mugged by, is so obnoxious, so big, so 
boorish that he is almost a caricature of a movie villain. 
He is so mean and so broadly drawn, in fact, that he loses 
his reality; in keeping with Charley's attitude, he is too 
much. He thus becomes an absurd annoyance, rather than a 



ew, and quickly 



serious danger. 

The fight at the poker table lets us know that Altman' 
world view has not changed. As the two men accuse each 
other of cheating and begin fighting, no one else gets in- 
incident, Charley's constant chatter is fast and energetic 
enough to dispel any unpleasant implications of the fight. 

ing and non-threatening; the fight seems only a calculated, 
safe, and playful risk on Charley's part. 

Later, Charley pushes on to a topless bar. Here he 



overhears a conversation between 



friend, who presumably is a junkie in need of thirty dol- 
lars. The waitress, with Charley's unasked for support, 
borrows the money from the cash register and leaves the 



pletely overheard and incompletely e 



ns an unsolved little mystery, the wait- 
m Charley's benign tolerance and ability 



Although she rem 
tress benefits f. 
to accept people on their own terms, devoid of any over- 

two women's relationship are thus downplayed in favor of a 
more amused, indifferently curious, and mysterious presenta- 



The bar scene is crucial to the development of Charley's 

ting at the end of the bar, hugging anonymity. Charley 
pushes himself on Bill, who, despite himself, responds to 
Charley's charm and warmth. Almost immediately, they are 
happily drunk, betting on the names of the seven dwarfs 
(an allusion to Marlowe's betting on the dollar bills' 
serial numbers) , singing, dancing, and getting mugged. 

For the first time. Bill looks relaxed and happy. 

Even the mugging is not allowed to destroy the film's 
light mood. We hear Charley and Bill being kicked, beaten, 



ing is relatively bloodless. Altman thus insures our sym- 
pathy for Charley and Bill and our continued disgust for 



jail sequence 



Charley and B 



bara. This scene is stolen, however, by a white, middle 
class family who has mistakenly been hauled into jail, al- 
though the family mutters unintelligibly and is never visu- 
ally placed in the foreground, their looks of bewilderment 
and their appearances in their bathrobes make them absurdly 
funny. They reinforce the negative portrayal of the police, 
who have also mistakenly picked up Bill and Charley, the 
victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators of it. The 
family makes a point, then, but does so without forcing a 



Charley 1 s and Barbara's home is seen through this 
same perspective, although the dishes are dirty, although 
Charley's relationship to Barbara and her roommate Susan 
are never explained, although breakfast is Lucky Charms 
cereal and a bottle of beer, although the furniture is 
lumpy, the apartment is warm and comfortable and the people 



younger prostitute, comes in crying because the man she 
''loves" has left her, Charley and Barbara help her get ovc 
the rejection. Charley does not give advice or moralize; 
instead, he tells her about the weight of the tongue of 

see through his transparent attempt at cheering her up, 
she responds to his silly, irrelevant, but sane approach 
to life and laughs. Ignore the problem at hand, focus on 



says Charley. 



amusing, and watch the problem disappear. 

At least temporarily, his strategy works. 
Susan's, and Charley's home is not at all 

A dirty apartment of a gambler and two prostitutes could 
easily have been treated as immoral, degenerate, unhealthy. 
Instead, however, their home is stable, sany, and humane. 

honest. Because we are seeing the film through Charley's 
unconventional, spirited, and relaxed eyes, the apartment 
seems secure, warm, and even beautiful. 

When Bill leaves the apartment to go to work, he is 
still under Charley's influence. So although Bill's atti- 
tude towards his work is reflected by the magazine's working 
cover, rows and rows of identical graves in a California 
cemetery ("Who in his right mind would put a cemetery on 
the cover of a magazine called California ?" his secretary 



casually and ironically treated and then obscured by some 
other activity. Only when Bill assumes control of the 

be emphasized. 

The differences between Bill and Charley are made ex- 
plicit in this scene, unhappy about being in his office. 
Bill calls Charley. While Bill is neatly dressed and sur- 
rounded by the superficially romantic glamour of a maga- 

, Charley is relaxing in his bathrobe 









feels like going to the race track and invites Bill along. 

only after hours and must lie like a schoolboy to go. 

The following scenes on the bus and at the track are 
among Altman's most comic and rhythmic. On the bus to the 
track, Charley meets an avid, superstitious woman who is 
betting on the horse Egyptian Fern because she bet on her 



At the track, however, he decided to bet on the horse too. 
When the astonished Bill sees Charley so confident, he de- 
mands an explanation for the strange bet. "She owes me 
money. She owes my friend money," Charley answers. After 
the race, before the official results are in, Charley runs 
to the ticket window. Bill cannot believe Charley's as- 
surance; Charley tells Bill he can feel the win. Bill re- 
mains unconvinced but finally, after he has proof of the 
win, he too becomes exhuberant. "We won! We won!" he 
screams. "No foolin'" is Charley's deadpan reply. 



The difference between the two's approach to winning 
is the clearest proof yet of the fundamental differences 
between the two. Charley is not just an instinctive gam- 
bler, but also has fun gambling. Totally at ease and at 
home at the track, he belongs there because gambling seems 



a natural activity and a celebration for him. Bill, on the 
other hand, gambles as if he were slumming; gambling seems 
exciting to him because it is risky and unsafe. Lacking 
confidence in his own instincts and feelings. Bill never 



looks like he is having a 



himself to have fun. Becat 
he never really integrates 



time. Thus, he needs written 
? certified, he then allows 
: his repressions and caution, 
the spirit of the track. 



is on strange territory. The girl on the bus, who has 
taken Charley's advice and bet on another horse, sees 

horse, and screams and yells at him. Then she begins throw- 
ing oranges at the fleeing couple and finally hurls her 
purse at them. Charley is naturally amused and just grins; 
Bill, on the other hand, overreacts and throws one of the 
oranges back at her. Typically, the orange does not come 
near the girl. "You can't even throw, you asshole," she 

Wanting to celebrate their win. Bill and Charley re- 
turn to Barbara's and Susan's. To their disappointment, 
they find out that the women have already agreed to go to 
dinner with one of their regular customers, a transvestite 
called Helen. Imitating the police in The Long Good-Bye. 
Charley and Bill wait for Helen, announce they are the vice 
squard, intimidate and frighten Helen away, and salvage 
their evening. Despite the prankster humor and the unerring 



accuracy of their vice square routine, their behavior is 
cruel, unpleasant, and self-centered. This is still Char- 

themselves to be carried by Charley's force and intensity. 
Although still light, this scene is the first in which Char- 
ley intimidates and victimizes a helpless person for sport. 
There is, then, an undertone of cruelty that is a fore- 
shadowing of the film's later mood. 

The unpleasant undertones vanish, however, as the movie 
moves to its most touching scene. The four go to a boxing 



is alive and active; strangers are betting both on the 
fight in the ring and on the fights that have broken out 
in the audience. "I'll bet five on the man in the suit," 
laughs Charley as they are leaving the auditorium. Com- 
fortable and happy with each other, the four are having a 

Their happiness is unexpectedly cut short in the park- 
ing lot, where Bill and Charley are again mugged. Once more, 
Charley takes control and salvages the situation by his 
fast thinking and faster talking. Even in this confronta- 
tion, which is potentially the most dangerous and most un- 
expected, Charley proves his ability to instinctively con- 
trol events and to maintain his healthy sense of humor. 



Although they come away freer, the mugging unharmed and 
relatively unfazed, Charley's and Bill's luck begins to 
turn. Charley and Bill return to the poker casino. This 
time, however, Charley and Bill are playing at different 
tables and are adrift in a sea of matronly ladies. Earlier 
in the film, Charley had explained that he likes the casino 
because the players there are suckers who think they are 
good gamblers. "Boy, 1 ’ he says, "do I love to beat those 
suckers!" Now, however. Bill and Charley are being beaten 
by those same suckers; none of their fast talking is able 
to minimize their losses. Charley's arrogant attitude and 
boasting has backfired; for the first time, we sense a 
superficiality behind Charley's routines. 

The film's transition from Charley's to Bill's point 
of view continues with Bill's call from Sparkey, his angry 
and unpaid bookie/loan shark. Under Charley's supportive 
gaze. Bill puts on a fake show Of bravado and succeeds in 

tactic is successful, it is the first ugly and real chal- 
lenge of Bill's responsibilities to Charley's more spon- 
taneous lifestyle. 



ids, and events. Charley's light, play- 
perspective by which the events are presented, 
poker players is glossed over by Charley's fast 



Bill 1 s comical escape; the first mugging is softened by the 
preceding warm drunk scene and following comic jail scene. 
Charley's, Barbara's, and Susan's unusual home life is 
framed by the concern each has for each other and by the 
sanely eccentric and child-like quality of their behavior. 
The Egyptian Fem sequence is so well paced, comic, and good 
natured that it buffers the nastiness of the encounter with 
Helen, leaving only a hint of the imminent mood shift and 
ultimate reassessment of Charley's character. At least in 

ley's personality puts everyone, including the audience, 
under his daszling spell. 

As soon as Charley leaves, however, the mood of the 

controlling force. And from the first moment, the shift 
is noticeable. In an especially degrading scene. Bill 
meets Sparky, the loan shark, and grovels for more time. 

We watch Bill plead, beg, and endure Sparky's insults and 
contempt. Had Charley been in the same situation, his 
ability to fast talk may have made the scene funny. Bill, 

tempts at hustling are ugly and unpleasant to watch. 

Bill's efforts to raise the money display none of the 
film's earlier compassionate and gentle humor. Harvey's 

more ludicrous than funny, especially when juxtaposed with 
Bill's real needs. Had Harvey been introduced earlier and 



been seen through Charley's sense for the absurd, he may 
have been genuinely funny and likeable. Appearing in Bill's 
segment, however, he loses the element of respect and 
healthy humor and becomes instead a character to laugh at, 

Failing to get money elsewhere. Bill goes to a poker 

To enter the game, he has to walk through a dark, cluttered 

pressionless woman and baby. The contrast between this 
house and Barbara's and Susan's home is striking; instead 
of warmth, light, and love, there is only squalor, poverty, 
and broken people. 

The disintegration of a healthy environment is con- 
tinued in the film's second bar sequence. Bill is drink- 

But there is no conviviality here, only an abusive drunk 

clothes and appearance indicate a former dignity, she is 
now shrill, embarrassing, and depressing. She dominates 

the first part of the movie are now totally absent. 

Bill goes back to Barbara's and Susan's house in the 
hopes that Charley has returned, but finds Susan alone. 






increasingly difficult 



demands being placed on him; Susan is still in between re- 
jections; both, then, are in need of genuine human contact. 
When Susan tells Bill that she finds him sexually attrac- 



tive, he awkwardly explains that he has no money. Since 
even McCabe had to pay for Mrs. Miller, there is some ten- 
sion hinging on Susan's reaction. Susan, however, is no 
Mrs. Miller; she smiles, tells Bill that she really likes 
him, and will do it for free. Despite or perhaps because 
of her sincerity and tenderness. Bill is embarrassed and 
clumsy. As they try to struggle out of their clothes and 
get comfortable, Barbara comes in and further embarrasses 
Bill into leaving. As he leaves, he becomes one of the 












e going to Hawaii w 



leave California and oi 
to be followed by Charley's ret; 

relatively early departure from 
and Barbara are very important 
Susan is a painfully naive 



i, vulnerable, and open per- 
a woman, wearing silly pa- 



jamas, exhibiting a very short attention span and an un- 
limited gullibility, vacillating from deep depression to a 



daily living requirements, 




Like Mrs. Miller, Barbara probably would not give her 
body, her livelihood, away for nothing, which perhaps ex- 
plains the lack of physical intimacy shown between Charley 
and Barbara and also their separate sleeping quarters. De- 
self-confidence, business mind, and foresight. Where Mrs. 
Miller takes a book to bed, Barbara takes the TV Guide . 

Both women are approaching their last years of active whor- 
ing, but Barbara seems financially and mentally unprepared 
for the transition to a future means of support. In fact, 

cent, sensitive "class girl” who lacks Mrs. Miller's strong 



Although Barbara and Susan do not have a bright future 
or a permanent love relationship with a man, they do have 
each other's respect and love. They have a home, complete 
with Christmas tree lights, and are committed to each 
other's welfare. Barbara offers Susan physical, nonsexual, 

Susan is capable of providing it. At first glance, their 






relationship appears to be a reversal of the Altman pattern 
of the isolated individual incapable o 
nent relationship. 

bara's and Susan's genuine and deep concern for each other, 
their relationship is incomplete. It is based upon their 
lack of sustained relationships with men and the more 
practical need of having someplace to live. Given the 
chance, each would choose a relationship with a man. Since 
there is no man, they rely on each other. Thus, regardless 
of how functional or comforting their relationship is, it 
still is a substitute for a total fulfilling one. 

Unlike Susan and Barbara, Bill and Charley choose to 
be together. Charley thinks Bill is a good gambling part- 
ners Bill expects Charley to help him loosen up and enjoy 
himself more. But like Susan's and Barbara's relationship. 



friendship. When Charley gets back from Mexico and they 
become partners again, there is an unresolvable tension 
between Charley's absurd, fast talking style and Bill's 
more sober, more troubled needs. Because of the conflict 



ture of both; we still laugh but it is no longer funny. 
When Charley appears in Bill's window, complete with 

Bill is hurt by Charley's abrupt depar- 
left out. Rather than deal honestly with 






Bill's emotional, if neurotic, reaction, Charley charac- 
teristically reverts to the crudely funny one-armed piccolo 
player joke. Bill laughs too long, too loud, too hysteri- 
cally to be laughing at the joke; he is also exhibiting re- 
lief at the reestablishment of their relationship. 

Partners again, the two set out to raise as much money 



While Bill pawns all his possessions, Charley resorts to 
street hustling, beating cocky young basketball players and 
mugging Lew, who he runs into at the track. And although 



we still sympathize with Charley and st 
efforts at hustling, the humor is more 
he still is likeable, he no longer seem 
healthy as he did in the earlier part o 

thing and must play the hands, listens 



Vicks Charley out of the room. Prom t 
stems from Charley's efforts to keep t 



payers, and then 



turns to twenty-one, roulette, and craps. His streak holds; 
he finally stops, after winning eighty-two thousand dollars. 
Understandably ecstatic, Charley is already making plans 
on which tracks to spend the next months at. Bill, however. 



strangely subdued. 






hard?" jokes Charley. "I lied." Bill admits, "there was no 
special feeling." Charley looks at him disbelievingly; 

is not enough for Bill, who stares at Charley. Finally, 
realizing he must say something, Charley fumbles with his 



s Bddie, a pool 



thing," he quietly says. 

A knowledge of The Hustler helps make Bill's 
lusionment over the absence of a special feeling m 
understandable. In that movie, ! 
hustler who loves the game, that he is a winner. Even 

thing much more valuable than material success. That feel- 
ing distinguishes him from the other characters; since they 
have no activity that they can feel at one with, they are 
losers. This is the same feeling that Bill hopes to find 



in gambling. 

Bill, an educated, conventionally successful person, 

world. He is irresistibly drawn to gambling, but is too 
cautious and reserved to be secure in the gambling world. 
Charley seems to be his perfect mentor. Despite a streak 
of cruelty and overpowering self-oenteredness, Charley is 
fun loving, street smart, impulsive. Having no job, no 
family, no real home, Charley is free of all traditional 



responsibilities . 
work purely 



importantly, Charley appears t 
and feeling, rather than reaso 
himself and control any situation 



Because so much of Charley's appeal to Bill stems 
from his spontaneity and naturalness, his admission that 

larly damaging. In a world of increasing standardisation 

bier's instinct is also an admission that he is playing a 

ous and natural person, acknowledges a gap between the pub- 
lic and private Charley, and raises the question of Char- 
ley's posturing. He did not know, then, that Egyptian Fern 
had won before the results were posted, but only acted as 
if he knew. In his own way, he is just as studied, mannered, 




If Charley can convincingly act out a special feeling 



stone of the core activity of his life, he can also act 
out the more peripheral roles. His talent for conveying 
a role explains the seal and effectiveness he brings to his 
police impersonation, the success and ease he has in 



hustling the kids on the basketball court and handling the 

rests upon the premise that he moves naturally and in- 
stinctively, that gambling is right for him because it 
feels right. Without that instinctive feeling, the role 

longer a question of feeling, but of giving the impression 

The realization that there is no special feeling or 

Instead of an exhuberant and spontaneous activity, gambling 
is merely another game that does not "mean a fucking thing . " 
At the beginning of the film, there is a machine that 
flashes a still from McCabe and tells whoever puts a quarter 
in (Charley, in this case) that the film will teach him how 
to play the game. And at the end of the movie. Bill has 
learned to play with style. But he still does not feel 
anything; he has merely escaped from one rat race into an- 



bar. He has absorbed everything he could from Charley; he 
has learned all the moves and has learned them well. And 
he has won. But the winning has been devoid of the feel- 
ing, the excitement, the emotion; this emptiness negates 



has spent many, agonizing and joyless hours winning it. 
in spite of the money, the personal pain and disillusion 
ment that he has undergone make him a loser. There is no 



of false excitement 
and gamblers. Had Bill lost the 
he potential winners; by making 



cheapens and degrades gambling 



h a big winner and 



the gambling world. 

This comment is reiterated and underscored by two 
beautifully understated details. The first occurs when 
Charley and Bill are about to enter the Reno poker game. 

film's first bar scene and the flowering of their friend 
ship, for luck. As they do so, a player that has just bi 

Although Bill and Charley do not notice him, they have s. 



In the film's first scene, there is a collection of 
individual types playing poker. One man is middle-aged, 
mild mannered, white collared, and Jewish looking. Al- 
though he does nothing distinguishable, he is memorable 
principally because he looks like Bill's father and just 
like what Bill will probably look like in twenty years. 









himself from the gambling world he finds so little satis- 
faction in. Even though it is not satisfying, gambling 
is a habit that is hard to break. 

This detail is further amplified by the movie’s final 

over a spinning wheel of fortune. About two-thirds through 
the credits, the credits begin to follow the wheel’s rota- 

ends, then, on a circular motion - everyone is where they 
began. Some are a little more disillusioned, all are a 
little older, and all are still on the circular treadmill. 
Once on, there is no getting off. 

As the film ends, Charley and Bill, like all the other 
characters, are alone. Bill shakes his head; "I'm going 
home," he tells Charley. "Oh, yeah," Charley snaps, "Where 
do you live?" Bill sadly smiles; he cannot tell Charley 
where because he himself does not know. So instead, he 

the deeply depressed and disillustioned Bill leaves. Char- 
ley is more resigned to life's lack of meaning and is more 
comfortable in his role; he bounces back much faster. 

Thus, after Bill leaves, we see Charley give the wheel of 

with the Reno singer. "It's the story of my life," he 
tells the singer as she begins to sing "Bye Bye Blackbird," 



Bye, bye, blackbird," they 



The allusions go beyond specific references; the char- 
acters themselves allude to and define themselves in refer- 
ence to the other movies. Susan and Barbara, for example, 
are directly contrasted with Mrs. Miller, when they cling 
to each other, they do so against Mrs. Miller's question. 

Whey they take down their Christmas lights and plan for 
next year's display, they recall Mrs. Miller's observation 



religion nine times out of ten.” And when Susan offers 



gives us an immediate 
satisfactorily shape t 






Christmas lights 






cannot even get genuinely sweet on each other or even be- 
gin to manage their future, they show that they are in need 



Without seeing McCabe , the same observations could be made; 
a knowledge of the comparison between Mrs. Miller and Susan 
and Barbara, however, makes Barbara and Susan even more 
poignant and more vulnerable. 

Although Images ' Kathryn and The laanq Good-bye 's Roger 

their colorful nature. Instead, Bill's inability to fit 



into his chosen role, his relationship with 



comfortably 






able. Nothing has changed; it is as if Matty Augustine was 
in the background screaming that the man "took my money" 


















Barbara and is played by an actress named Barbara (Colby) , 
a writer at his magazine is Barbara, as is a waitress. 

Reno fling, he sees a female casino employee's name tag - 
Barbara. Bill smiles, having found his sign and his cour- 



“Por Barbara," the credits read. Barbara, then, ties to- 
gether all of the film's episodes because the name enforces 
a continuous thread. It gives Bill critical comfort and 



gives Altman a heightened 
is special because it is ! 
discover all the Barbaras 
pants and beneficiaries ir 
California Split is. 



i, then, a derivative work. Evi 
>t have the originality of McCabe , Images , 
i-bye , it is a sustained and complex film, 
totally new method * of continuity here and 
re major and better developed characters. 



California Split than in the other Altman movies. His fun- 

of his quietest and most effective tragedy. Unfortunately, 
in his next movie, Nashville , Altman will strive for even 
greater range, but will sacrifice the depth and humanity 
he achieves in California Split . 



CHAPTER 




stereotypes, and simplifications. Since there simply is 
no time to effectively develop so many characters, Altman 
utilized these devices in order to tell the story . 1 

Several character types exist in Nashville . Perhaps 
most striking are those characters that are least developed 
but original, like the Tricycle Man. He never speaks, but 
appears mysteriously throughout the movie, doing his magic 
tricks, giving characters silent support, or just moving 

pretation, no clues are given to his identity and he re- 
mains an entertaining visual mystery. The soldier is 



another unusual character. Since his mother saved Barbara 
Jean's life years ago, the soldier has been raised in awe 
of Barbara Jean. Bather than enjoy her music, he hovers 
respectfully around her, a frightening representation of 
the total fan. Rather than enriching himself, his slavish 

Lacking the intellectual information necessary to 

them emotionally. Just the opposite is true of several 

emotionally, but not enough to react intellectually. Lady 
Pearl, for example, seems gracious and competent, but is 
also tearful and withdrawn as she reminisces about the Ken- 
nedy boys' Presidential campaigns. Although her preoccupa- 
tion foreshadows the film's climactic assasination and con- 
trasts the Kennedy charisma with Hal Phillip Walker's anony- 
mous media politics. Pearl's inability to adjust to the 
present conflicts with the rest of her personality. Since 
we do not know enough about her to reconcile her two sides, 
we fail to believe in her. 

Like Lady Pearl, Barbara Jean is incompletely developed 
and, as a result, ineffective. Although we can see her in- 
stability and fragility, we cannot understand her nervous 
breakdown. Although her eager acknowledgement of the fans 
at the airport and the hospital suggests her happiness with 
the role of a star, the private Barbara Jean cannot mentally 
withstand its demands. Again, we do not know why. We are 



a sustained i 



always kept on the outside of Barbara Ji 
stand her. As a result, we never develop a 
volvement with her been more deeply cultivated, her murder 

Other stereotypcial characters are merely trite. Tri- 
plette, for example, is Nashville 's company man. Anony- 
mously good looking and innocuous, he sneaks into hotel 



d hospital i 



him a familiar 



oms, quietly pursues his interests, and per- 
dangerous and negative characters because 
d reliance on superficiality and style make 






s another stereotype. A "touris 
s polite and nondescript. One of those qui 
, we only see him at a distance: his car 

alks to his mother on long distance and as- 
as not picked up a fungus from the rooming 

Unfortunately, Altman uses the 
cliche without illuminating, refining,, or explaining the 
stereotype. Because Kenny remains a stereotype, our 






reaction to the murder is dulled; we have seen too many 
similar situations to respond to Barbara Jean's murder in 
a less jaded way. Although our reaction reinforces Nash- 
ville's criticism of America as violent and egotistical, 
the reaction is obtained cheaply and deceptively. Had 
Altman developed Kenny and Barbara Jean as people, our 
reaction to the assassination would have been more telling. 
But by keeping us so distant from both characters, Altman 
creates and guarantees a detached audience response. 

Although most of Nashville 's characters are stereotypi- 



friendship with 



real people. Sueleen, a talentless singer 
ing a star, demonstrates the strength of 
n after being ridiculed and forced to strip 

er show business future, however, is her 
a loud, crassy co-worker, Wade. Because 



if he succeeds o 



f Nashville. We do not find out 
she could be happy without her 
w enough about Wade to substan- 
tiate our positive response to him. But Sueleen' s refresh- 

they demonstrate towards each other, give tht 
of humanity and individuality missing from Nashville 's 
other characters. 



tinnea Reese is perhaps the film's most intriguing/ 
t complex character. An outsider within Nashville's 



power structure, 

impressed by the 
happiest when at 
dissatisfied with 



is the only white gospel singer in 
es to the black church. Seemingly un- 
se tinsel of show business, she is 
e with her two deaf children. Quietly 

to Tom's motel room. After they make love and she begins 
to leave, Tom calls another girl. Despite Tom's insensi- 

language that she is happy to have met him. Because she 
seems so giving, so vulnerable, and so unhappy, Tom's 



e differentiates herself. 









s humanely. Realizing that a life 

th the song." Linnea, unlike the 
lue of life; she needs, respects. 

Even though Nashville has twenty-four major characters. 
Is more a socio-political statement about contemporary 
study. Although the nature of 



























ally simila 



selflessly to save a common symbol of their lives. In 
Nashville , the anonymous crowd cares only about hearing a 
concert. When Barbara Jean is killed, the human impulse 
is to panic and run. As soon as Albequergue gets control, 
however, the crowd calms down, cooly accepts the shooting, 
and joins Albequergue in singing "It don't worry me." 
Rather than affirm the resilience of the human spirit and 
the ability of people to work together in a crisis, the 



human feeling in today's world. Unlike McCabe , Nashville 
shows us a faceless crowd interested only in self-survival. 

Split . Los Angeles, gambling, and sleuthing are, however, 
idiosyncratic and specific worlds that do not easily gen- 
eralize to the rest of America. With Nashville , Altman is 

Nashville is the center of the new South, a place 
where the traditions of the past blend with the optimism 
and material prosperity of the present. Although it, like 
Hollywood, is a dream factory for those who want to be show 
business stars and although it revolves around its success 
stories, the dream and the stars seem more accessible, more 

ing Haven, Linnea, and Tommy Brown, sit in the same bars 
that the locals do and drive the same types of cars. They 
all go to neighborhood churches, sing in local choirs and 



Uninsulated 



live in comfortable but modest homes, 
the outside world, they deal with the more ordinary people, 

waitresses, chauffeurs, patients, soldiers. When Barbara 



an interested person too. When Tom wants to call Linnea, 
he does not have to go through personal secretaries and 
answering services) he just picks up the phone, dials her 
















tive stereotypes! its events, bleak and degrading! its pos- 
sibilities for solutions and hope, minimal. Cold, cynical. 



















fulfillme 



filming, the characters remain puppets who reinforce a ] 
determined political statement. 

Rather than unfamiliar or shocking, Nashville 's mei 
sage is not a hard one to argue against. Since the mesi 
although not palatable, is not troublesomely offensive, 
since the twenty-four characters keep the fi3 
breathlessly, since the acting and technical 
the film are uniformly excellent, and since 1 
publicity, critical acclaim, and ej 
suggested a major blockbuster, why 

Failure is an ambiguous term \ 
adequately established. Although i 







were ecstatically favorable, many, especially the non- 
Eastern and later reviews, have been unfavorable. Many in 
the Altman cult have been disappointed by the stereotypes 
and superficialities of the movie, especially after viewing 
it more than once. But as Altman taught us in images , we 
must let the movie generate its own standards. For Nash- 

but box office receipts. 



From the moment that Nashville began becoming the new 
media event (a phenomenon helped by Pauline Kael's obnox- 
iously self-confident advance rave) , Altman made no secret 
that he hoped that Nashville would make millions. He 
thought it would "dean up. I think it's going to take all 






Nashville 






notion. Like Charley in California Split or like its own 
Triplette , it is a movie that has replaced substance with 

see is what you get.” But while this lack of depth may 



lectual film goe: 
disappointment w: 



>m the relatively small group of inte 
ind would be a possible cause of thei 
Nashville , the general public in the 

movie. No, Nashville certainly did 
substituted flash for intellectual 



The key to Nashville 1 s limited appeal may instead be 
in its unique focus for audience identification. Unlike 
an Airport , which offers familiar stars like Burt Lancaster , 
Dean Martin, and Jacqueline Bisset and immediately lovable 
old ladies like Helen Hayes, Nashville offers actors famil- 
iar primarily to Altman fans. Not only are there no stars, 
there are also no enviable or instantly attractive roles 
to identify with. Unlike the other multi-character movies 
that deal in stereotypes, there are no pre-established 
audience favorites or larger than life super-heroes or 
villains. The “ordinary" viewer does not get immediately 
rewarded, nor does he have enough time with a character 
to develop an emotional relationship beyond the stereotype 
or exterior. As a result, he becomes bored, lost, and 















Haven's party; we hear his unmistakable voice and then we 
see him. When asked why he is in Nashville, he mumbles. 









ived from a foreknowledge of Alt- 
ened cinematic perceptivity, most 


















Since 1968, Altman has turned out an amazing, probably 












was edited for what he thought other people, the American 
public, wanted. And for the first time, Altman seems de- 

Nashville, then, is a turning point for Altman. It is 
his culminating political statement. It updates his poli- 
tical concerns and broadens his message to specifically 
include us all. Because he has now presented the socio- 
political vision so completely , he has exhausted the issue; 



he risks repetition and stagnation. Also, Nashville has 

just a brilliant cult director, he is now an authentic 
celebrity. As such, he has the status to assume total cor 



movie companies will mishandle and then quietly drop his 

alienated many of his old fans, who hate the idea that 
"their" film director has gone public or who simply did 
not like Nashville . For the first time, then, many are 
skeptical, uncommonly critical, and hostile. Altman is 
confronted with an uncertain audience and is entering a 
new stage in his career. Be can learn from Nashville and 
can continue to develop artistically, hoping one day to 
receive the popular acclaim that he deserves. He can 
stagnate and remake his old movies until he runs out of 
money and syncopants. Finally, he cal 



past record and 




llrlllliiiP 






a™, sgvrsf-t 3f * 



CONCLUSION 
THE AUTEUR 















depression and 




Although MASH deals with the Korean War in an adoles- 
cent, absurd manner, its humor depends on the same negative 

unit establishes a supportive, zany, positive environment. 
Sex, drink, drugs, and fun, themselves a juvenile (if in- 
viting) concept of happiness, are readily available to its 
members. Threats to group stability are either neutralized 
and then assimilated, like Hot Lips, or expelled, like 



improved material prosperity and 



the increasingly complex power structure. The social re- 
sponsibility of McCabe and the rage of Thieves have been 
replaced by a pervasive indifference to anything larger 
than one's own immediate and individual self-interest. 

Thus, until Marlowe's values and self-esteem are questioned, 
everything he sees is "okay by me." Charley and Bill 
hustle other gamblers and victimise Helen because they need 
the money for their big game or want to have a good time. 
Tom can casually sleep with women because he is "easy" I 
Haven can support Walker so that his own political ambi- 
tions can be furthered; Barbara Jean can opportunistically 
use the rally to make up for a cancelled concert. And when 
Barbara Jean is killed, thousands can sing the new national 



interest is threatened. 

Mrs. Miller explains that if no one else is going to take 
care of her, she must take care of herself. Because the 



individual's survival rests only on his i 
self-reliance becomes necessary. To rel: 
is foolish; the other person may die, fa: 
No, in a hostile world, the individual w! 
depend only on himself. 



and desirable state of the individual. Since the business 
or marriage partner will not always have the same interest^ 




































at the beginning of California Split . Altman tells os that 




































thought 



innermost nature. Because we see Mrs. Miller's expressive 
face and watch, her handle McCabe in a variety of situations , 
for example, we think we know her. But, as McCabe says, she 
"spends more time behind a locked door than any other fe- 
male." When she retreats into her private drug- induced re- 
remain unknown. Marlowe works the same way; probably be- 
cause Elliot Gould plays both Marlowe and Charley, the two 

Marlowe's brash impudence; as viewers, we follow his pur- 

though at the end we can evaluate his values and his moti- 
vations, we know little more about Marlowe than Lennox does. 
Like Charley, Marlowe is always acting the role of the 
private eye; like Charley, he never lets us get close to 

The necessity for roles also explains Altman's un- 
paralleled use of stereotypes. Perhaps no other director 
has been able to take a stereotypical character and make 

Brewster 's characters, Nashville's cast. Dr. Verringer, 

Marty Augustine, all depend upon our immediate identifica- 
tion with a stereotype. After the initial identification 
is made, an individual quirk or trait that gives the charac- 
ter his immediate impact and individuality is established. 
Augustine, for instance, depends upon our familiarity with 
the successful, respectable, corrupt, and inept nouveau 



riche; his amusingly absurd monologues, affectations, and 
inept henchman, are doubly comical because they are repre- 
sentatives of successful suburbanites. Lulled by the con- 
ventionality of the stereotype Augustine is defined by, we 
and Marlowe are astonished by his sudden, uncharacteristic, 
and brutal smashing of a Coke bottle into his mistress' 
face. Especially since he has seemed so absurd and inept, 
his unexpected and dramatic display of violence stuns us 
into believing his power and status. Verringer uses the 
stereotype in the same way; one of the film's most absurd 
and seemingly ineffectual quacks, Verringer and his strange 
hospital are genuinely funny partially because they reflect 
the almost equally absurd faddists of today's society. His 
bold entrance into Wade's party and his surprising show of 
strength there go against the stereotype; like Augustine, 

dimension to his character. Because they understand their 
roles, Verringer and Augustine become successful. They 
realize that most relationships are superficial and brief; 
conforming to a stereotype or role is essential if the re- 
lationship' s time is to be used effectively. But to dif- 
ferentiate themselves from everyone else and establish an 
individual identity, they use the stereotypes creatively; 
they let the type work for them by adding an original and 
unexpected twist. Thus, with one well placed move, they 
make themselves potent and memorable. They transform their 
harmless, amusing eccentricities into serious power bases; 



eir demands no longer seem annoying trivialities Jo 
me unavoidable and formidable. 

d unimaginatively play their roles, fall flat and 
Another set of characters, howev 



California Split 's 



e too innocent a 






e readily than we 



Louise. He respond maternally to them 
their incompetence and vulnerability » 
do Altman's troubled adults, who have had more time to 
learn. Prances, of That Cold Day , Wade, of The Long Good- 
bye , Barbara Jean, of Nashville, and especially Kathryn, 

and thus lose their abilities to function rationally or 
socially. Totally out of control, they place themselves 
at the mercies of other people, as Wade does, or of their 
uncontrolled emotions, as do the women. Losing the ability 

find out most painfully from Kathryn, who occupies an en- 

roles lie not a healthy and engaging honesty, but a horrify- 
ing helplessness and terror. Rather than being more posi- 
tive and appealing, these individuals that do not hide be- 






ters. California Split 's Bill is dissatisfied with his 
ordered, rational, and predictable existence. Instead, he 

stincts in a spontaneous, exciting world of gambling. The 

and, under Charley's tutelage, wins thousands of dollars 
in the big game. He also learns that there is "no special 



and genuine leaves Bill stunned and empty; although there 
are clues that Bill will resign himself to this insight and 
play the role, we can only speculate on his next step. 



the artificiality of social roles and because he is the 
first relatively controlled and coherent figure without a 
role. Bill's future seems especially interesting. Unfor- 
tunately, Altman's next installment, Nashville, does not 
address itself to his predicament. Instead, Altman re- 
treats and reverts to a diverting but stereotypical and 
superficial collection of character vignettes. Amazingly, 
then, the nine films do not present a single fulfilled and 
open individual; all the characters either search for or 
already have a satisfactory public role. Perhaps Altman 
feels that the happy individual makes dull art; perhaps he 
just does not see one. In any case, the person who is 
free from roles and happy simply does not show up in Alt- 









plot line, Altman gives himself the opportunity to include 
any shot, object, character, or incident that strikes him 

























efully withholds information we need to re 









softly and quickly t 






tive thematic component. At the end of That Cold Daj., for 
example. Prances’ almost inaudible "1 want to make love to 






sally in- 
to plac- 










ully and 



audibility 









Altman does not use the allusions pretentiously or 
self-consciously, however. Instead, they delineate the 












e Greatest Show 
, to remind us 

that determines 



, especially 



that we are watching a movie, a w 

in the later films. Since Altman presents a 
changing universe and similar types o 
movie plays off the others. McCabe , Thieves , and Nashville , 
for example, are three separate and independent films. When 
taken together, however, they show the progression of atti- 
tudes of the last hundred years and thus help place the in- 
dividual characters in a more meaningful historical perspec- 
tive. When the still from McCabe is placed in California 
Spilt , accompanied by a verbal explanation that we are 
going to learn how to play the game, we can immediately 
understand Bill's predicament and more quickly feel his 



have Mrs. Miller to compare them to; again a context is 
established that reverberates against an entire network of 
relationships. Thus, new life is given to the earlier 
movies and immediate contexts are established for the more 



and artists also encourages this non-linear, unfinished 
style of film-making. The reputed degree of openness and 










ing group of people who have had 






S ir.KS ” 



BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH